Friday 12 April 2013

Peter and Alice

Noël Coward Theatre

30th March, 2013

This review was written for the theatre blog What's Peen Seen but the reviewer is also a guest-reviewer for us. Here is a longer version of the review:

Skyfall stars Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw reunite in Bond film screenplay writer John Logan’s new play about Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies, the muses behind Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Following an imagined conversation the two might have had when meeting each other in the back of a bookshop in 1932, Peter and Alice marks the second play in the Michael Grandage Season.

Judi Dench says early on in the play ‘Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland in one room’ which not only sums up the play but is also telling of how these characters have led their lives being so closely linked to their literary alter-egos. The play is bookended (perhaps quite literally) with a bookshop design representing how their lives have been trapped in fiction, a metaphor brilliantly conveyed in Christopher Oram’s design.

The majority of the play, however, takes place when the bookshop disappears to reveal a toy theatre set where we see Llewelyn Davies and Liddell Hargreaves relive experiences pleasant and traumatic from their youth. I fully believed that Dench became an excited girl again only to fade when realising that she has to grow up, reflecting that marriage seemed like a “resignation to something so vast”. Both of them present the binary forces of longing to go back to childhood and all its simplicity as well as trying to escape from it. An interesting truth that Logan presents is how we long for adulthood when we’re children, but then complain of the brevity of childhood when the notion of growing up dawns upon us. But this isn’t a new idea and one that even reminds me of Matilda the musical.

The ending is truly sad: there is neatness in the way the theatre curtain of the toy theatre closed as the bookshop set came back down, perhaps as if drawing a close on the story of their lives.  There is sadness in Alice’s acknowledgment that no one will remember her in 100 years’ time but they will remember Alice in Wonderland and so the real Alice decides to take comfort in living as her. So even though this is impractical, she dies old and happy. Peter, on the other hand, admits ‘I’ve grown up’ away from Peter Pan. So he accepts reality, but others will always know him as the boy who never grew up as shown in the newspaper headlines ‘Peter Pan joins army, Peter Pan marries, Peter Pan opens publishing firm’. He can’t escape that image projected onto him by others and by JM Barrie and thus dies fairly young by jumping In front of a tube train – a striking end line delivered, perhaps cruelly, perhaps fittingly, by Olly Alexander who plays Peter Pan.

The acting by the whole cast is mesmerising but especially by the two leads. There is a moment when Dench bursts into tears when it’s revealed that her children have died in the war, but the play is made all the more moving by Adam Cook’s sound design which ensures that the cast’s echoes reflect echoes of the past.  

After seeing FindingNeverland at Leicester’s Curve last year, I realise the creators of the musical might have glossed over some of the painful realities that Llewelyn Davies later faced in his life. Growing up, the mundanities and responsibilities of adulthood and the idea of literature as a safe-haven all seem to be themes which are very much à la mode in theatre and all explored even further by Logan.

John Logan’s enjoyable play might be predictable and may not offer us anything new, but Grandage’s smooth direction and the superlative acting of Dench and Whishaw make this a highly-recommended piece of theatre. At the performance I attended, Dench seemed to be struggling with a cough but she excellently kept in character and accepted a drink of water from Whishaw’s cup at one moment, which exemplifies the closeness of these two professionals. To conclude, Peter and Alice is a brilliantly acted play that will put a smile on your face but which is also extremely touching.

Due to the huge amount of £10 seats on offer for this season, I imagine many theatregoers will be plucking for the balcony, which I fully recommend. The view is decent, the leg room is ample, and the seats are comfy and wide – certainly much more so than the Dress Circle for my experience of Gatz last year.

Peter and Alice runs at the Noël Coward Theatre until 1st June, 2013

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Quartermaine's Terms

Wyndham’s Theatre
25th February, 2013

‘We see a character in a room: doors open, people enter and leave and, by a remorseless accumulation of incident, that character’s doom is sealed.’

Rowan Atkinson returns to the West End to St. John (say “Sin-jon”) Quartermaine after playing Fagin in Oliver! (2009) to do his first play since the 1980s. Richard Eyre’s revival production of Simon Gray’s play set in the staff room of an English school for foreigners in Cambridge in the 1960s is triumphant – I would totally recommend it.

I have so much to say about this play, so I’ll start with the title: although ‘Terms’ could refer to things being on Quartermaine’s Terms, this is ironic as he’s a very passive character. His passivity is exemplified in one character’s line of ‘St. John you have an amazing ability to let the world impinge on you’. Also, it wasn’t until I saw the play that I realised that ‘Terms’ refers to school terms which are the only markers for time in Gray’s play as Quartermaine lives an otherwise very uneventful life. As the person who seems happy babysitting for colleague’s children and doesn’t seem to mind when rejected by friends for the evening, he is the ‘perfect outsider’.

Eyre’s nuanced production begins with a sturdy white proscenium arch and a painted red, with black brushstrokes, curtain which perhaps hints at a modernising institution which still remains sturdy, thus indicating that faults lie elsewhere, namely in the individual characters themselves. Tim Hatley’s staff room design is impressively detailed even complete with false draw under the sink.

Although the play is not completely a comedy, fans of Rowan Atkinson won’t be disappointed, particularly as we get to see the inner depths and sad realities of this bumbling, optimistic character. Quartermaine’s high-pitched laugh and subtle head movements are enough to earn him a laugh. There is a moment in act two, scene two when Derek looks up to the top of the theatre and reflects ‘Love. Love.’ which is followed by Atkinson looking up as if confused by what Derek was doing. Similarly when Derek remarks about Daphne’s legs, Quartermaine confuses them with Derek’s legs, the laugh coming from a mere turn of the head. Atkinson’s comic genius is demonstrated throughout, but what is great about his performance is that he plays Quartermaine with utter truth. In fact, despite being sat in the upper circle, being able to see into Atkinson’s eyes meant that I truly believed his character and the sheer despair of it – strangely, it was a character that I many people can relate.

But this is certainly not a one-man show and I think it’s testament to Gray’s writing that I can still remember most of the characters’ names, all of whom change distinctly throughout the four year timespan. Louise Ford’s Anita gets pregnant twice, Conleth Hill’s Henry loses his wife Susan, Felicity Montagu’s Melanie becomes noticeably happier (indicated by the way she dresses) after her mother dies, and we see Malcolm Sinclair’s Eddie visibly age and lose his work partner Thomas, with whom there are hints of a homosexual relationship (although I didn’t fully infer that). We see Matthew Cottle’s Mark go through drastic changes with his facial hair along with his relationship and progress of his novel and we see Will Keen’s Derek (who is the new teacher who gets called Dennis and is clearly far superior to Quartermaine) learn his pupil’s names and go from desperately breaking down to being happy in his new relationship as well as go through several mysterious injuries. In the first scene of the second act, he shouts at the incompetent Quartermaine because he might be losing his job, and it is interesting that his back was to the audience for most of it until he softly says that he’s not begrudged which is when he turns back to the front. Atkinson’s reaction to this is stunning; he is left quivering by the end of the outburst.

The one character who doesn’t change throughout the play is Quartermaine. He is a constant sitting in the same chair, wearing the same suit. That is until the last scene when we see the staff (mostly reluctantly) gathered for drinks in the staff room with Quartermaine dolled up in a tuxedo, once again showing that he doesn’t have much to grasp onto in his life. His optimism is ultimately tragic as he is finally told that he won’t be needed any more, thus leaving for a very poignant moment.

Gray’s play asks questions, namely what happens to characters both on and offstage (see Mark Lawson’s article regarding offstage characters), but mainly we are wondering what happens to Quartermaine. He is essentially someone who is seen often reaching out for a friend but often turned down. There is a hilarious moment when a disrupted Melanie shoos off Quartermaine who is wittering on, tapping the table at which she’s trying to read. He keeps getting turned away, and we genuinely feel for him that when he does get many invitations, he ends up spending the evening somewhere he doesn’t want to be, being the selfless man he is.

I did wonder whether Eyre was supplying his audience with some theatre in-jokes. ‘Don’t bump into the furniture’ is a line often mocked as something a good actor manifests, but it was interesting how some of the characters either did or came close to bumping into the furniture at times, with Henry actually stepping into a bin at one point.

Each act (and indeed the whole play) is framed by Quartermaine sitting in his chair, but with Quartermaine quietly devastated by the news at the end his hand was quite visibly shaking as he said his final lines followed by the lights dimming.

‘We see a character in a room: doors open, people enter and leave and, by a remorseless accumulation of incident, that character’s doom is sealed.’

I think it is unfortunate for the production that it hasn’t been nominated for any Olivier Awards. Even if not for the acting, I think that Richard Eyre’s production is deserving of Best Revival. I enjoy the theatre and I might give five stars away too easily, but this production of Quartermaine’s Terms deserves it and it will remain one of my theatrical highlights of the year. With some powerful moments and extremely nuanced performances, it is – as Quartermaine would say – ‘terrific’.

Quartermaine’s Terms run at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 13th April, 2013.

Monday 1 April 2013

The Mousetrap

St. Martin’s Theatre
26th February, 2013

I saw performance number 25,114 of The Mousetrap in London, and although it has now played 60 years in the West End, I don’t know what the secret is to its longevity and I question what it is still doing in the West End.

Agatha Christie essentially gives us a murder mystery but as with most Christie mysteries, there’s a twist and things aren’t as simple as first thought. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying this as we are surely used to this with crime drama by now and after seeing the touring production of Spider’s Web a few years ago, I was expecting it to be not so straightforward a Who-Dunnit? At the end of the play, a cast member steps forward and tells us that now we know the ending, not to divulge the secret of The Mousetrap to anyone else, so I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I didn’t find it that engaging as I have almost forgot the specificities of it!

One of the main reasons I go to the theatre is to see performances, as one of my main interests is acting, however it is fair to say that it is the story that drives the play forward. The performances appeared to be a bit caricature but nicely move the plot along but didn’t quite do enough to cover up any signs that Geoff Bullen’s production is a little creaky.

The opening music is nicely puzzling and is fitting for a murder mystery and the Three Blind Mice (the original title to the radio play) tune evoked a sense of childhood games which nicely reflects the idea of the play being a game – something to solve. This compounds with the title The Mousetrap conjuring images of board games and such like.

Cleverly, the play keeps you guessing who the murderer might be and there are many signs, clues and red herrings along the way – even in the programme’s cast list! Many of the characters wear similar hats, coats and scarves and there’s a long-running joke of seeing characters going off through one exit and then coming on fairly quickly by another door as if the whole room was a set! This could be a nice theatrical in-joke alluding to there being no rooms offstage but it also means that the murder could be possibly done by anyone of them as it is so easy to get from one place to another in the house.

There are some nice links with Hamlet (which contains the play The Mousetrap) in the form of repeating one’s actions to try and catch-out the murderer but I feel that other comparisons to Shakespeare are limited. The very ending sees someone rush onstage with a burnt meal declaring “I think it’s done!” which, although could be a nice theatrical, self-conscious ending, seemed bit cheesy.

I feel that the real mystery of The Mousetrap is how it’s been running for so long. Not to sound cruel, but it seems a piece of pure entertainment and might have done even in its hey-day. Nothing wrong with that, although when there are so many brilliant plays in the West End at the moment such as The Audience, Quartermaine’s Terms, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Old Times, Peter and Alice, etc., it seems a shame for people to be flocking to it on its UK Tour excited to see something which sounds excellent because it’s been running for over 60 years. If you don’t see many plays I wouldn’t recommend this one as there are far many more superior ones out there. In terms of long-running plays, I totally recommend Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black (also touring this year) based on Susan Hill’s novel.

As for The Mousetrap, I realise Christie’s writing is popular and it is undoubtedly clever as well as fairly enjoyable and, considering it was a Tuesday matinee, the auditorium was fairly full, but I think there are better things to see. The seats in the Upper Circle were comfortable although fairly old-fashioned and I paid full-price for my ticket (around £16?) although I could have moved forward I suppose.

I perhaps feel that I’m being generous with my three stars but it is a triumph for anything to run for this long and the production company does do a lot for young people in the theatre and I certainly would recommend that you see it for the experience of it.

Interestingly, I saw The Mousetrap on the same day as The Audience, so it’s great to have gone from one institution to another (in the form of HM The Queen) and in terms of theatrical institutions (The Mousetrap/ Agatha Christie to Dame Helen Mirren) and from the world’s longest running play to one of the world’s newest plays in one day.

The Mousetrap is playing at St. Martin’s Theatre in London’s West End and is also on tour throughout the UK.

Old Times

Harold Pinter Theatre

27th February, 2013 with Kristin Scott-Thomas as Kate and Lia Williams as Anna
29th March, 2013 with Kristin Scott-Thomas as Anna and Lia Williams as Kate

Pinter was often guarded about the meaning of his plays and Ian Rickson’s production of Old Times, currently playing at the newly-named Harold Pinter Theatre, remains a mystery to me. Superficially, the play is set in a farmhouse and sees married couple Deeley and Kate and Kate’s former best and only friend Anna coming to visit. By the end of the play, questions are raised over whether Anna is really there or if both Kate and Anna are dead and whether Deeley has just been working through his memories. In the second act, Anna tells Deeley “No two women are the same”. His reply of “That’s true enough” is indicative of one of the interesting things about this production which is that the two female leads alternate roles every four performance, with the casting being decided on Thursday evening by the flip of a coin. Alternating roles was notably done by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production of Frankenstein, however, that was criticised by some as being a mere marketing coup. With Old Times, however, it is meant to be a way of unlocking the play.

I take it as a coincidence that before my first viewing of this play someone walked past me wearing a perfume that brought back memories of one of my first West End theatre trips back in 2006, but the concept of evoking memories and remembering things differently to reality is certainly a main interest in this play. Rufus Sewell brilliantly plays Deeley with great wit and often a sardonic tone, with the sheer number of questions he asks at the start exemplifying how the play could be interpreted as Deeley working though memories in a therapeutic way. There’s a moment in act one where he’s at the front of the stage looking uncomfortable whereas Anna is telling Kate at the back ‘You weren’t dead. Ever. In any way’ when he erupts with ‘Stop that!’ as if disturbed by the past or maybe even confronted with present realities.

Scott Thomas and Williams excel in both roles. I seem to remember Scott Thomas’ Kate being more teary and staring more (like a sphinx, as some critics have commented), whereas Williams brought out an anger and silent resentment in Kate which built nicely until the play’s climax when I remember her being much angrier than Scott Thomas’ portrayal of her. It is Kate’s pauses, almost plain-ness that means we can easily remember Anna more – and maybe even that Deeley remembers her more. For Anna is sexy with her blonde hair and blue blouse and skirt, this sexiness certainly being brought out with Scott Thomas’ portrayal by her delivering her lines with more of a dry humour and having more sexual tension with Deeley, created at one moment by her standing either side of his leg. In Michael Billington’s words:

She blazes: when she stretches back on a bed, Sewell hovers over her as if magnetised. She slinks as she rolls up a sleeve or smooths her shirtwaister over her thighs. She seizes on the humour and makes it dance.

Williams’ Anna, on the other hand, I seem to remember being a bit gladder to be there, perhaps less secure and more excitable. For instance, there’s an enjoyable moment early on when Deeley and Anna sing segments of songs to Kate and whereas Scott-Thomas’ Anna seemed more witty, Williams’ Anna seemed to get lost in the moment more. I could indeed be remembering this wrong as it is over a month since I saw it for the first time and I think there’s another over-riding factor that affected my interpretation of the play.
My problem with the production is that I’m not sure whether it is the two actresses’ different interpretations on the roles that changed the way I saw the play or the fact that my first viewing was of a Wednesday matinee and my second of a Friday evening’s performance. Indeed, there were more laughs in the latter one but maybe that was from Scott Thomas’ performance of Anna and Williams’ performance of Kate being funnier. Either way, I’m glad I saw it twice, simply for the stunning acting of the cast.

There were slight blocking differences in the two performances. I remember Williams’ Anna falling on the floor towards the end, leaving her vulnerable, whereas Scott Thomas didn’t do that. Indeed, her Anna did seem a much stronger woman, interestingly similar to Williams’ Kate being much stronger as well. Also, the positioning at the opening of the play was mirrored with Scott Thomas’ Kate on the Stage Left sofa and Williams’ Anna Stage Right of the window, and then this being swapped for the other casting arrangement. It is also interesting how the three characters seemed to work themselves around the chairs of the set, with them likely being in three different positions at some point, perhaps hinting at how Deeley (who is often sat in the centre) was working through and around certain thoughts. Furthermore, (as I recall from the second viewing) considering Kate seems like the odd one out throughout most of the play, it is touching that Deeley moves away from Anna to go towards Kate at the end, before kissing her thigh and then making his way to his armchair before the final tableau, which is itself marked by a rise and fall of sudden light.

Hildegard Bechtler’s simple design is beautifully dark and enigmatic, with the main ‘natural’ light coming from a wide window at the back, but the room is still dark enough for the need for lights. The red (indicating a more private feel) bedroom of the second act took me as odd as some of the curtains and sideboards seemed painted on, perhaps alluding to how some things aren’t as real as they seem. I also enjoyed the subtle lighting changes of Peter Mumford’s design.

For the my first time seeing the play, I paid £10 for a front row (centre) day seat for the Wednesday matinee and for the second time, I bought my ticket when booking first opened last September (?) for £20 due to an admin error which let me buy a student ticket in the stalls for this price. The error was later changed but I didn’t have to pay any extra.

The play was 80 minutes long with no interval.

On Tuesday 26th March, it was announced that Old Times is up for Best Revival at the Olivier Awards, whereas Kristin Scott Thomas has been nominated for Best Actress. I take it this is for both her portrayals of Kate and Anna. Sadly, it seems that Lia Williams has been snubbed from this category. Maybe Scott Thomas is the one audiences wanted to see more, and I preferred her portrayal of the more arresting character of Anna, but Williams gives matchable performances, with her Kate perhaps outshining her co-star’s. Especially as Cumberbatch and Lee Miller were nominated and won together at last year’s ceremony, it seems ridiculous that Lia Williams (and indeed Rufus Sewell) haven’t got nods in the acting categories.

Old Times plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 6th April, 2013.
The Olivier Awards 2013 are on the 28th April at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.