Friday 27 September 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Old Vic, London
21st September, 2013, matinee

In an interview with Mark Lawson at the Criterion Theatre, the incredible actor/ director Mark Rylance announced that he planned to do Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones after seeing them on Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy. After much anticipation and press regarding their age, it opened last week at the Old Vic to mainly terrible reviews, perhaps leaving people wishing that he hadn’t suggested it. However, I say that some of the criticism was unfair and would recommend it for Redgrave’s and many of the supporting cast’s performances.

It is usually the case that Benedick and Beatrice are played by actors in their forties rather than their 70s (Redgrave) and 80s (Earl Jones). But the idea that you are never too old for love is true and at times it really doesn’t matter that these two reluctant and bantering lovers are pensioners. At other times though, it does make Rylance’s production a little senseless. Firstly, you wonder what this 82 year-old Benedick has been doing in the war to prove so helpful to Claudio. Also, when Leonato tells his niece Beatrice (who looks older than him) ‘By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue,’ (II.i) you can’t help but be a little surprised that they are still trying to find her one. But other than that, the age ‘matter’ doesn’t really get in the way.

Rylance’s concept works well and it helps to explain the casting: he transports Messina to a WWII English village with American troops visiting. Ultz’s design has said to be dull and not the most aesthetically exciting but it certainly is striking. From the second row of the stalls, you can see up into the well-lit brick fly tower, which further makes the design look more impressive. The design is largely wooden-looking with a giant inset box which some have said carries the look of a Wagamama’s table. I’m not sure if it helps the acoustics and it is pretty hard to analyse but it certainly provides shelter which is useful for scenes set in more private places and also sets up some hiding places. To be honest, it reminds me of what the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse might look like next year and the whole production certainly does have a Shakespeare’s Globe feel about it. The staging is mainly lively and open and the front few rows are lit to help protrude the performance space into the audience space.

I did wonder if the age of Redgrave and Earl Jones would stop the famously funny gulling scenes from being as active as major productions from recent years and I’m afraid they do come across as a little disappointing. Unlike some reviews, I can say that you can see some of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s reactions but for most of the scenes, they are either hiding in or behind a wagon. It does bring a moment of joy, however, when Redgrave leans forward and directly asks an audience member “if this is true?” and by not seeing their reactions, it does allow more focus to go on the other players who are excellent in these scenes.

A moment of delight in this production comes from the Dogberry/ Watchmen scenes. Peter Wight’s English Bobby Dogberry (with a touch of a Northern accent) is very funny and plays well off of Tim Barlow’s elderly Salvation Army officer Verges. His dance moves behind a Bluesy version of ‘Sign No More’ are eye-catchingly hilarious, if not a little milked. The other watchmen are played by children scouts and the scene where they catch Borachio in an apparently dark barn provide a moment of action equal to something you might see at Shakespeare’s Globe in the sense that it’s fun, spirited and induces a lively reaction from the audience. It is interesting that Dogberry doubles with the calm Friar Francis as both are characters who seek peace.

Vanessa Redgrave is on fine form! It was my first time seeing her on stage and I was surprised by how warm, rich and spirited her voice is. Her gesture to the sky on ‘but then there was a star danced, and under that I was born’ is magical and makes you aware that you are in the presence of a great (II.i). An extra layer of interest is added here because Redgrave’s birth was announced on the Old Vic stage after a performance of Hamlet.

James Earl Jones, sadly, lets the production down in my opinion. He has a great voice and his Benedick has charm but there are times when his diction is bad and I felt that his struggles with his lines got in the way of his character. Comparing him to many other (albeit younger) Benedicks, he is often sitting down which halts the pace and energy of the play. I could be wrong but one of his final speeches was got through with repeating bits and I don’t think that he carried on after “and that is my conclusion” even though there are other lines in the script.

An ironic edge is added to Benedick’s ‘the world must be peopled’ which is fine as it does receive a knowing laugh. Quentin Letts criticised the fact that Beatrice’s ‘Kill Claudio!’ got a laugh but that is not an uncommon reaction. Afterall, a laugh does relieve the tension that the severity of the line brings if put into reality.

Many of the supporting cast are excellent. Michael Elwyn (who didn’t have much stage time in The Audience) makes for an excellent Leonato. He spits with anger in the wedding scene as he chases Hero around the stage and carries a particularly powerful performance all the way through. It is a shame that Beth Cooke’s Hero and Lloyd Everitt’s Claudio neither particularly stand out but maybe the former does when being accused in the wedding scene and is being held by Redgrave. Melody Grove’s East London Margaret is extremely impressive as is Ben Kingsley-Adir’s Borachio. Alan David (of Jerusalem fame with Rylance) is excellent as is Danny Lee Wynter’s highly convincing Don John. He wears a scar on his left cheek as if to physically convey a bitterness and perhaps jealousy which reflects the character’s darker side. James Garnon’s masterful Don Pedro also impresses.

There seems to be a major production of Much Ado every couple of years or so, but maybe this ill-reviewed production will make producers wait a little while. I was a little disappointed that there was no symbolism about noting or things being resolved. Although it might seem a little contrived, the eventually-solved Rubik’s Cube at the end of Josie Rourke’s West End production was a neat touch. The Old Vic, its programmes and its front of house staff were as friendly and beautiful as ever.

I suppose it is a good thing that someone can suggest a play and an interesting cast choice and then for it to happen, but maybe in this case it shouldn’t have done (some might say). However, for £14 for the second row of the stalls, I can’t really complain. At times, this production seems a little messy, but Redgrave makes it very special as do many other members of the cast. As long as you’re not paying top dollar for it, I reckon that in some way or other, it is a must see.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 30th November, 2013.

Monday 16 September 2013

Barking in Essex

Wyndham’s Theatre

14th September 2013 matinee – penultimate preview

Finally, after all of the hype and anticipation, we met the Packers. Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes, Karl Johnson and Montserrat Lombard star in a new comedy by late writer Clive Exton which tells the simple yet effective story of Essex crime family the Packers. Algie Packer is soon to be released from prison but his family have spent the £3.5 million that they were supposed to be safekeeping, thus leaving them ready to flee their mansion of a home. But before they have the chance, Algie’s new love Allegra Tennyson has arrived wanting the key to the safe deposit box. With the Packers assuming she is simply after the money they decide to hire their elderly hit man of a neighbour Rocco to deal with her. By the end of act one they find themselves with a corpse, a shot man and a note confirming that Allegra was in fact genuinely Algie’s partner.

The plot has understandably been likened to Only Fools and Horses and does have hilarious moments but sadly does not live up to its billing as a riotous comedy. The only thing that perhaps is riotous about it is the amount of swearing. Although it is funny at times, in my opinion if you find bad language titillating you need to get out more. Act one opens with classical music and the revealing of Simon Higlett’s spectacular set which stinks of wealth and new money. When the word ‘cunt’ is repeated several times in the opening lines, humour is created from the culture clash of it being a word perhaps not expected to be heard. Later on, when Chrissie calls ‘where is that cunt?’ followed by Evans’ deflated reply of ‘I’m here’ it is again funny but does begin to get old. I felt that if the ‘cunts’ and ‘fucks’ were taken out, many of the laughs would be too.

The second act is set in the sort of place where the Packers belong: a poxy flat that is the antithesis to act one’s setting. There’s a brilliant joke in this act where after a great number of suggestions both in the design and in the text that they are in a Peruvian dump worthy of something out of Banged Up Abroad, in actual fact they are more close to home. It’s a joke that perhaps didn’t get the laugh it deserves, maybe because of the many hints of them being somewhere else, hints that strongly show the ignorance of the Packers.

Exton brilliantly shows that with a family who are willing to turn on each other and who have completely lost their moral compass, things can go wrong. For the characters in Barking in Essex, death is the only way of stopping them, and (trying not to reveal too much) once we hear Algie arrive at the flat and the lights go down on a desperate Darnley, there is a suggestion that he will take the same way out. Emmie implores ‘Feelings. Go on feelings’ and mocks morals as being weak and religious but it is Darnley who recognises that ‘you’ve got to have rules’ as a family and that recklessness is simply not enough. Although there is bathos at the end, I felt the script could have been more effective and specific and also wondered if it was not perhaps unique.

The Packers are a family that represent everything that they mock and criticise. ‘She’s filth. Definite filth’ Chrissie Packer accuses of Allegra after demonstrating much worse aspects herself along with Emmie’s criticism of ‘nice language’ because of a few swear words, completely ignorant to her own torrent of expletives. And in the second act she accuses incest on the locals when the Packers themselves are not exactly innocent in that respect.

Exton’s widow Mara writes in the programme that he was fascinated with the English vernacular and I feel he’s captured it extremely well. What he creates feels extremely relevant and reflects what some people are really like today. Evans has said that you can easily replace the Packers with bankers or politicians but by setting the play in Essex perhaps does criticise the shallowness, hypocrisy and greed of anyone (including ordinary people) in today’s society.

The play is excellently-acted all round, particularly from Lee Evans as the layabout Darnley, the only Packer with any redeeming features in that he puts an end (albeit cruelly) to the amoral so-called family. With just a single look he can evoke laughter but as done before in The Dumb Waiter and Endgame also shows his versatility as an actor, particularly in those final moments. Sheila Hancock is hilarious as the mother who can both be callous and motherly. She superbly plays the matriarch of the family but I wondered if the final moments of Emmie’s downfall could be more roundly and deeply played. Keeley Hawes is highly convincing as Darnley’s money-grabbing wife (and sister) whose hunger for fame and a celebrity lifestyle soon leaves her dead – an act which seems quite apt and interesting when seeing talentless, real-life wannabes on the television now. Karl Johnson is impressive as Rocco, who longs for a quiet life rather than the one he lives, but it is hard to ignore the far superior Noises Off that he was in last year.

When the play was announced a year ago I imagined a farce that made the best use of Evans’ skills in physical comedy but although Harry Burton’s production allows for moments of physical humour, it did feel a little crowbarred in.

Some might see this as a very commercial piece of theatre drawing on the recent popularity that TOWIE has brought Essex as well as the star casting bringing in audiences. But any show that brings new audiences into the West End should be applauded. However, many other productions also try to do this but with large numbers of cheaper tickets and day seats. Barking in Essex does neither, but I still do recommend it. Very nearly four stars!

Barking in Essex runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 4th January, 2014.

Monday 2 September 2013

Autumn Highlights

The Cripple of Inishmaan, Barnum, Sweet Bird of Youth, A Chorus Line, Relatively Speaking, Strange Interlude and Titanic all closed this weekend thus making room for new productions to open and therefore raise the curtain (apologies) on an Autumn of exciting London theatre. Here are just some of the highlights:

Tonight not only marks a cast change for the National’s hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Apollo but also a busy Autumn for the National as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. The occasion will be marked with an evening of special performances from the past 50 years involving Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear and many other guests as well as being broadcast live on 2nd November on BBC 2. NT Live will help celebrate the anniversary with encore screenings of Hamlet, The Habit of Art and Frankenstein. The Autumn highlights from the Southbank include Marlowe’s Edward II and Tori Amos’ new musical The Light Princess and I imagine that Nicholas Hytner’s successor as Artistic Director will also be chosen in the coming months.

The Michael Grandage Season moves onto its final two productions with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Sheridan Smith as Titania and David Walliams as Bottom followed by Jude Law playing the title role in Henry V. The other highly-anticipated Shakespeare productions of the Autumn come from David Tennant’s Richard II (dir. Gregory Doran) at the RSC and their former home of The Barbican and Mark Rylance’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic starring older-than-usual Benedick and Beatrice James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave.

Back to the West End and after all of the hype, it will finally be time to #MeetThePackers with Clive Exton’s new comedy Barking in Essex with Lee Evans, Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes and Karl Johnson at the Whyndam’s. From the end of October, Hawes’ husband Matthew Macfadyen joins Stephen Mangan in a new Jeeves and Wooster play Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York’s and a star-studded revival of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Perhaps a nice surprise is that three new musicals open in the West End this Autumn with the highly-anticipated Jamie Lloyd production of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments opening at the Palace, the surprisingly low-key new Tim Rice musical From Here to Eternity at the Shaftesbury and the new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical about the Profumo Affair Stephen Ward the Musical at the Aldwych.

The Menier Chocolate Factory have today announced that their Christmas musical will be Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (Or Optimism) based on the novel by Voltaire but there are still some other theatres to announce productions before the end of the year. Namely, the Old Vic has yet to announce their Christmas show and the Trafalgar Transformed season still has to announce their fourth production.

According to the ATG website, The Ladykillers has extended through Christmas and it is looking likely that Reginald Roses’ Twelve Angry Men will transfer from the Birmingham Rep to the Garrick Theatre starring Martin Shaw and Robert Vaughn. After the anticipated transfer of Barnum from Chichester fell through, the Gielgud lies empty apart from a rumour of Strangers on a Train, but speaking of Chichester, their successful production The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui opens at the Duchess this month.

Vicky Featherstone continues her first season at the Royal Court by presenting John Tiffany’s visually exciting and disturbing production of Let the Right One In. Based on a Swedish coming-of-age novel and first produced at the National Theatre of Scotland earlier this year, there is promise for this production to have a longer run. In December, Tom Hiddleston plays the title role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse which will be screened as part of NT Live next year and the Royal Opera House have their first West End transfer with The Wind in the Willows at the Duchess.

London theatre is nearly always exciting but the coming months promise something for everyone.