Wednesday 21 October 2015

Mary Poppins

UK tour, Curve Leicester
16th October, 2015

The new tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s and Disney’s musical Mary Poppins, with new music by Stiles and Drew, is, as a successful musical should be, exhilarating. However, I can understand if someone is cynical about this new tour. Firstly, Curve have raised ticket prices for the show (it is apparently the first time they have had a seat over £50 for a show). There is also a wagon load of merchandise in the foyer, ranging from mugs and programmes to mini handbags and umbrellas, from which they are also selling stuff at the exit as the audience leave the theatre. Furthermore, you may say that Mary Poppins is one of the newest mega musicals. In a section on McTheatre in his book Theatre & Globalisation, Dan Rebellato argues that these big shows can diminish some of the virtues of theatre: ‘its liveness, the uniqueness of each performance, its immediacy, its ability to respond to place and time’ (Rebellato 2009: 41-2). ‘In place of these virtues’, he argues, ‘these shows appear almost entirely unchanged wherever they are’ (Rebellato 2009: 42). Indeed, for this tour, although it is still Richard Eyre’s production (and Matthew Bourne’s), they have got in a tour director, James Powell, to try to recreate the show presumably whilst Eyre is working on Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Powell has previously worked on Mary Poppins, including the last UK tour.

One positive aspect of mega musicals, however, is that reproductions are no longer the ‘pale and shabby imitation of the metropolitan original’ (Rebellato 2009: 41). Indeed, this tour has all of the tricks and effects that made the London production so magical. The house set is smaller than it was in London, instead going for a pop-up book design, but this tour is superb. And even if liveness is compromised, it may give the commercial touring circuit a boost. Regarding the high ticket prices, there is a bit in the show where Mr Banks turns down a bank loan to someone because the idea simply wanted to create money, but had not heart and offered nothing much else in return. Well the prices for this show are in return for a stellar musical which Friday night’s audience (myself included) lapped up.

The musical features a series of set pieces, each one more impressive than the last. These range from Mary emptying her bag to set up the nursery, the collapsing kitchen which puts itself back together again after a stirring A Spoonful of Sugar, Bert’s extraordinary proscenium walk during Step in Time, and finally Mary flying over the audience for the finale. They form a series of magical coups-de-théâtre which adhere to the lyrics of one of Stiles and Drewe’s new songs, Anything Can Happen, referring to the good that Mary Poppins does for the Banks family. Indeed, the power of the imagination is one of the themes of this musical along with, like the PL Travers novel and 1964 film, women’s rights, family duties and tradition. Both The Sherman Brothers’ original music and Stiles and Drewe’s new songs are wonderful and, at times, soaring – although I do wonder if Mary Poppins would say ‘no flies on me’! In particular, Being Mrs Banks, Cherry Tree Lane, Practically Perfect may be new songs but they fit in with the rest of the score so well and are more memorable than some new musical theatre songs. However, I did prefer Temper Temper to its replacement Playing the Game.

Bob Crowey’s colourful and clever design is superlative, and the choreography (whether it’s by Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear or associate choreographer Geoffrey Garrat) is some of the best I’ve seen. Those big numbers such as Step in Time and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious gave me goose bumps and the park fantasy scene is joyful. Out of the cast, Zizi Strallen is an impressive Mary Poppins and Matt Lee does well as the chirpy Bert driving the show forward (even if I thought that his Australian accent could be heard sometimes). Also, Rebecca Lock, Wendy Ferguson and Grainne Renihan are excellent and Milo Twomey is very pleasing as one of the show’s best characters, Mr Banks.

The tour is still in its early performances at Leicester’s Curve but, overall, I heartily recommend this new tour of Mary Poppins (which could be London bound) as a great family show.


The Barbican, (NT: Live)

15th October 2015 

Few theatrical events in recent years have produced as much publicity and intrigue as the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in Lyndsey Turner’s blockbuster production of Hamlet, staged at the Barbican and broadcast to the nation via NT: Live. For the past four months the tabloids have been fuelled by stories of embargo breaking, bootleg recording, and the determination of the self-named ‘Cumberbitches’ attempts to get that enviable golden ticket. But away from all the promotional hullabaloo, what’s the production actually like? Does it live up to the hype?
The answer is both ‘yes’, and ‘no’.

Cumberbatch is a fine actor, there is no doubt about that. He imbues the Great Dane with a mature gravity, this is no petulant teenager, but a considerate and likable man that we can unquestionably root for. Special mention must go to his crystal clear delivery of Shakespeare’s often dense language. Cumberbatch conveys the meaning of the verse with dramatic resonance, creating an admirably accessible Hamlet, great for introducing, and – crucially - not alienating, new audiences to The Bard’s most famous play. However, in making Hamlet an unequivocally heroic ‘good-guy’, there is little of the ambiguity which makes for truly a compelling tragic hero.

Dispelling with the eerie original opening, Turner introduces us to a Bowie loving Hamlet in mourning, placing our hero front and centre; and there he remains for the entirety. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is earnest in his gratitude, warmly humorous in his quips, and apologetic in his brief flashes of malice – there was no bite to his suggestion that Ophelia should ‘get thee to a nunnery’, for example. And while the play-acting was entertaining (the toy soldier element worked well in reference to the Fortinbras plot), at no point are we led to seriously question Hamlet’s sanity. This is a hero less flawed and driven to despair by procrastination and misogynistic complexities, rather, he is merely too decent a chap to thoroughly ‘get his revenge on’.

Turner also eschews much of the subtext often applied to the play, even the most obvious of themes – Hamlet’s Oedipal complex – is non-existent, perhaps deemed too seedy for this clean cut model. But it seems, judging by Es Devlin’s immense and visually impressive set – the grand staircase and balcony are put to good use - that most thought went into attempting to fill the vast stage of the Barbican, and subsequently the subtleties of the text have been misplaced. The overwhelming hurricane and resultant rubble enshrouding the stage following Hamlet’s banishment is a fitting symbol for the disintegration of the state on such a big platform, but only just avoids burying the play as a consequence. Despite the generally broad direction, several choices work very well. The decision to stage the soliloquys in slow-motion allows for the intimacy of introspection without breaking the flow of the scene, while also emphasising Hamlet’s feelings of isolation and detachment.

Amongst several stand out performances, Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius is an every man, avoiding the trap of comic book arch villain, breathing life into, and even encouraging a little empathy for the usurping King. Sian Brooke’s twitchy Ophelia is a fragile waif. She is broken from the very start and her vulnerability only makes her inevitable breakdown all the more devastating. Ophelia’s poignant final exit – tiptoeing over the rubble of Denmark, a quietly simple moment, heightened by Jon Hopkins’ beautifully ethereal music – is a high point in the production. Similarly, the piano playing by Ophelia and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) suitably emphasises the siblings’ bond and provides a neat leitmotif for Ophelia’s mad scene.

Turner stages Shakespeare’s most famous work on a justifiably epic scale – to attempt anything else on such a huge stage would be folly - but subsequently has to paint with such broad strokes that this plot-led staging misses out on the ambiguities and ambivalences of other productions. A fine, well-acted, and incredibly accessible production for new audiences to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of Shakespeare, but this Hamlet is more likely to enter the history books due to the popularity of its leading man and resultant publicity, than purely on the merit of the production itself.

Hamlet plays at The Barbican until 31st October 2015.

Monday 12 October 2015

Our Country's Good

Olivier, National Theatre, London
3rd October, 2015, matinee

Next month, the Chancellor will announce new cuts to the arts. In a recent press release, Artistic Director of the National, Rufus Norris said that the theatre is prepared for various scenarios from their funding being cut by 25% to 40%. A revival, then, of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is smart programming. First staged at the Royal Court in 1988 in rep with The Recruiting Officer, Wertenbaker’s play was (and remains) so successful as it provided an argument for theatre in an era when its success was judged on its commercial power and ability to make money. The play charts the landing of the first English convicts in Australia and it’s not the first play to explore the subject. Steve Gooch’s Female Transport (1973) focuses on the occasional glimpses of friendship and humanity of the convicts and officers amongst the brutality of the prisoners’ conditions. But Wertenbaker goes further than that, delving into the good that theatre can achieve in society and the rehabilitative powers of art. The excellent as usual programme notes at the National also bring out the state of prison conditions past and present, and how art can be a helpful solution.

Nadia Fall’s production shows what a rich and theatrical play this is, but some of her directorial decisions seem flawed. For a start, Max Stafford-Clark’s original production made use of doubling which Fall doesn’t do, thus making some asides about doubling and using one’s imagination in the theatre not having as strong an effect as they might have been. She has also changed the role of the Aborigine, admittedly making him more present throughout than the text suggests but cutting some of his lines. Instead, his presence gives him the effect of omnipotence, giving those indigenous to Australia a knowing power, a role not unlike the Native American maid in Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County (2007). Something else which is impressive is how Fall, and Peter McIntosh’s colourful design, makes the best use of the Olivier’s vast stage and drum revolve to create a production that is in tune with the play’s theatricality. The revolving stage stops some of the action seeming static and provides a mightily impressive first scene on the ship, really highlighting the epic potential of the text. The revolve also splits in two, allowing one half to be higher than the other, thus creating a raised stage for the rehearsal scenes. Subtler moments are also made such as through Harry Brewer and Duckling creating shadow effects with the help of Neil Austin’s lighting. Cerys Matthews’ music also adds to and enhances the text, playing out over scene changes, although it is notable that she has also used music by Johnny Cash and onstage musician Josienne Clarke. Their work gives the production a folkish sound, the emotion of which works best when characters join in. Overall, this is a production which impresses the senses. But I wondered if this was at the expense of the text.

Part of the problem is that I know the play fairly well, but I wondered, if this was the first time I saw the play, would some of Wertenbaker’s thoughts have lost impact in Fall’s grand but sometimes splashy production? But, alas, maybe that is only a fussy point. After all, the Olivier stage has the advantage of emphasising the wider themes of a play, and there are still some moments of intimacy in this production. The cast, on the whole, deserve a lot of praise. Jason Hughes does a good job tying everything together, fighting for the play to go ahead and enduring an internal struggle of missing his beloved Alicia and falling in love with Mary Brenham. Paul Kaye is hugely convincing in a very difficult role as the drunk Harry, untrusting of his Duckling (an excellent Shalisha James-Davis), who eventually dies. Furthermore, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Jodie McNee and Ashley Bryant make for an engaging comic trio, but also show their characters’ struggles. McNee is particularly strong in the opening scene of act two. Finally, Matthew Cottle also pleases as the quietly pernickety Wisehammer. His character’s love of language makes for one of the most poetic and enjoyable scenes in the play. Fall has gathered a very strong ensemble overall.

This major revival of a modern classic generally ticks all the right boxes and makes for an extremely entertaining few hours in the theatre, but I get the impression it hasn’t reached the level of excitement as its original production. However, Wertenbaker’s play remains a strong and beautiful reminder of the restorative power of theatre. Let’s hope its messages have reached George Osborne.  It's a great play and production but on consideration, this version doesn't quite fulfil the play's potential.

Our Country’s Good plays at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 17 October.