Monday 30 March 2015

Death of a Salesman

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
28th March, 2015*
*Please note that this was a preview performance

Following the success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge and the Old Vic’s The Crucible last year, Gregory Doran marks Arthur Miller’s centenary with his staging of, arguably, the playwright’s most celebrated play. This absorbing production plays with space and time, paying tribute to Miller’s original, fastidious directorial notes.

Salesman is remarkable for Miller’s strict stage directions, specifically the use of space in locating time and reality which is central to the understanding of Willy Loman’s tragedy. The trajectory through Willy’s idealised past and disillusioned present is fluid and greatly facilitated by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. The contrast between the romanticised past and the suffocating present of the up-built city is spatially conveyed by vast billboard style apartment blocks, dwarfing the Loman’s tiny wooden house. The set changes giving an added sense of the bustling city as the running crew, dressed as city-dwellers, swiftly move pieces around amidst a heady steam issuing from subway grates. Constructed from translucent materials, the set works alongside subtle lighting changes in which the once solid presence of the surrounding tower blocks are transformed by a sun-dappled hue, almost disappearing as Willy transgresses, moving downstage into the free space accompanied by the symbolic pastoral flute leitmotif – the live music contributing a vibrancy that recordings cannot reproduce. Interactions and dialogue run seamlessly into one another just as the boundaries of the playing space are discarded during Willy’s transgressions. Distinctions between time and space are simultaneously hazy and clear; blurring the lines between time and space, a contradiction which highlights the melancholy and ultimately maddening contradictory and illusive nature of memory.

The performances are generally good; Harriet Walter as the loving, put-upon Linda, and Alex Hassell’s lost and conflicted Biff are among the standouts. Antony Sher gives an all encompassing performance as Willy, fluctuating between humour and pathos with ease, the measured rhythm of his speech allowing every syllable to be heard and considered. This is a play where no line or moment is superfluous, despite the apparent superfluity of the modern American salesman. The scenes within the Loman house are particularly absorbing in their intimacy, creating a feeling of being in the room with the characters, no mean feat in a large theatre. Moments where direction, performance, lighting and music all work beautifully together create points of lucidity, particularly towards the end of the play and the build up to the climax, proving that a decades old play, performed countless times over the years, still has the ability to move audiences.

Miller’s Salesman seems to be ingrained in the minds of many not only as a pinnacle of the modern tragic genre, but as a piece of contemporary American social commentary and, consequently, Doran’s production plays out exactly as one would expect, and want, such a classic to do so. Doran takes no risks with the material, save a slight shift in staging which the RST thrust stage needs must accommodate. The placing of Miller’s text at heart, being performed well by a reliable cast, is a very solid and respectable way to celebrate one hundred years of one of the great American dramatists.

Death of a Salesman plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2nd May, 2015.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical

Curve, Leicester

6th March, 2015. Please note that this performance was a Public Dress Rehearsal.

I must admit I was dubious when it was first announced last year that a new musical based on Sue Townsend’s much loved novel was to be produced at Leicester’s Curve theatre. The structure of the novel seemed as if it would be less than easy to translate to the stage and the prospect of the more hormonal (ahem) aspects of the story possibly being diluted for a family audience gave pause for thought. However, I need not have worried, because Adrian Mole, it turns out, makes for a rather sweet and touchingly humorous musical.

Jake Brunger’s book recalls the spirit of the late Townsend’s novel as Adrian and Pandora come to life in all their adolescent glory . The nature of the source material dictates that the show takes an episodic form, charting a year through the diary entries and observances of young Adrian. The story of first love, family upset, and the minutiae of suburban life is heartfelt in its identifiable simplicity, with humour deriving from everyday oddities and empathetic, if caricatured, characters. The memory of the novel pervades the production – something drawn upon in Tom Rogers’ innovative set, Adrian’s scribbled writings ever present in the textbook style houses and proscenium fashioned after torn out diary entries.

Pippa Cleary’s music lends itself well to the British musical cannon with its tuneful melodies that never stray into the brashness of the more showy American compositions, perfect for an intimate show about British idiosyncrasies. Tickling lyrics also make the most of Townsend’s writing – a memorable example being the song ‘My Lost Love’, Adrian’s rhyming of ‘Pandora, I adore ya, I implore ya…’ referencing the novel before progressing into something more complex as various characters fill the stage, pouring their hearts out to different melodies, melding into one. The song makes for a striking moment, as does Adrian’s mum, Pauline (Kirsty Hoiles) having a heart-to-heart with her son about her failing marriage in ‘Perfect Mother’. At the opposite end of the spectrum, act two delivers some fine comedy scenes in Adrian’s hospital nightmare ‘If You’d Lived’ and the hysterical nativity scene, the latter being a true highlight and gaining a rapturous response from the audience.

The show is rounded out by a hard-working cast of six adults and four young actors (of which there are three rotating teams), often doubling in roles. Hoiles is a standout as Pauline, balancing humour with pathos, yet the show ultimately, and inevitably, belongs to Adrian – at this performance played by Sebastian Croft. He leads the show with charismatic skill, portraying both Adrian’s irritating pretentiousness and naïve sweetness equally well. He makes for a likeable lead while being believable as an endearingly flawed, yet optimistic, teenager.

Cleary, Brunger and director Luke Sheppard have created an intimate and appealingly British musical comedy which pays tribute to one of Leicestershire’s most celebrated writers and its premier at Curve feels like the perfect celebration of the midlands county.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ - The Musical plays at Leicester’s Curve until 4th April 2015

Monday 9 March 2015

Our Country's Good rehearsal blog 1

[Ahead of Nikolai Foster’s first production at Leicester’s Curve as Artistic Director, one of the assistant directors/ stage managers gives an insight into rehearsals for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good]

‘It’s a theatrical custom, the company is formally introduced to each other’
(Our Country’s Good: Act One, Scene Eleven)

The first week of rehearsals for Our Country’s Good began in the studio at Curve. Although not all rehearsals will take place in here and the room currently looks different to what it will look like for the performances, it gave the cast a feel for the size of the space. After initial introductions were made, the company sat down for a readthrough of the script, giving the opportunity to hear Wertenbaker’s words read aloud for the first time and in the voices that will inhabit each character. After each scene, Nikolai and the cast discussed the text, getting to grips with unfamiliar terminology and bringing in points picked up from prior research. For instance, we talked about the famous actors of the 18th century such as Garrick and Kemble who are mentioned in one scene and how knowing more about them informs the cast’s interpretation of their characters. The day ended with the cast being measured for their costumes.

Over the next two days, the company started to put the play on its feet, starting with making a ship for the first scene. The production is going for a stripped back feel, which this scene epitomises. In a simple, yet very theatrical and poetic way, Nikolai and the cast have begun to explore ways to evoke the barbarity and longing that exist amongst the fleet of English convicts.  It looks to be a powerful opening tableau. Another scene which was focused on was Scene 3 where the officers are shooting birds whilst discussing the convicts. As this production will be staged in the round, the company are discovering the power of diagonals, and so it has been especially interesting to see how characters make their entrances and where they look up to shoot. The cast were also encouraged to be specific with the play’s use of Wertenbaker’s language and how punctuation helps to give a stronger sense of narrative and informs character motivation. Furthermore, in looking at the officers’ physicality and how they might carry their guns, the actors have started to build a level of detail which will help solidify the world of the play.

Although we have just begun the rehearsal process, we have started to thoroughly explore the play which will further our ability to tell its story well. The cast now has a week off to individually work through their scripts and are looking forward to returning to rehearsals to continue working through this exciting play which acts as an affirmation of theatre and its value in society.

Our Country’s Good, directed by Nikolai Foster, plays at Curve, Leicester 16th-18th April, 2015. It is a co-production with De Montfort University students.