Wednesday 29 March 2017


Curve, Leicester
28th March 2017

I’ve been a fan of RENT for a long time. For myself and, I imagine, many others, it’s a sort of ‘rites of passage’ show, introducing the teenage me/us to a world of more grown up, and serious musical theatre. I’ve practically worn out my DVD of the final Broadway performance. So it was thrilling to finally see a fully mounted professional production here in the UK in the shape of Bruce Guthrie’s tour, marking the 20th Anniversary of the musical’s premier, and the untimely death of writer Jonathan Larson, just one day before the first performance. Some may express concern over the impact Larson’s death had on the legacy of RENT; do people sentimentalise it? is it an example of posthumous acclaim that may have been more muted had he lived? – My answer to this is ‘no way!’, RENT has proved so popular because of the precocious, yet enduring way it promotes racial and sexual diversity (something which is, shamefully, yet to be equalled in 21st Century theatre), and its themes regarding difference, acceptance and creation. But most of all, in a world where ‘living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own’, Larson instead highlights the vitality of Life and the gift that is Love.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, RENT essentially charts a year in the life of a group of friends living in New York’s Bohemian Alphabet City as they struggle with love, art, poverty, drug addiction, and disease – all captured on camera by filmmaker, Mark (Billy Cullum). While catchy songs such as ‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘Seasons Of Love’ and ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’ (which, incidentally, I would absolutely savage if RENT Karaoke was a thing…) are the big crowd pleasers, for me it’s the more understated songs that resonate. The frankness of ‘Life Support’ – ‘Reason says I should have died three years ago’ – and the introspective ‘Will I’ – ‘Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?’ – expresses all the mental and physical anguish of living with HIV/AIDS.

Similarly, ‘On The Street’ brings to light the harshness of homelessness (concentrated further by the poignant contrast with the Christmas setting, the pinnacle of familial intimacy) – ‘No room at the Holiday Inn, oh no. And it’s beginning to snow’. Jenny O’Leary in particular makes an impact as a homeless woman, draped in a tattered American flag, who berates Mark, ‘My life’s not for you to make a name for yourself on!’, a line which perfectly summarises the tension between liberal art and liberal guilt – pertinent still in this age of debating the ethics of so-called ‘poverty porn’. Larson doesn’t create a one-dimensional, rose tinted portrayal of liberal creatives, he points out the contradictions and downfalls of ‘living for your art’, as the woman says, ‘This lot is full of motherfucking artists… You gotta dollar?... I thought not’. Just as liberal guilt gets a going over, Mark’s sensitive lament, ‘Halloween’, illuminates the problem for many people living during the AIDS epidemic, that of survivors guilt – ‘Why am I the witness?’. It is a credit to Larson’s skill that these lyrics (sorry for the abundance of quotes, but they really speak for themselves) perfectly capture a certain time and place, yet have completely stood the test of time. And coupled with the rocking anthems of the big set pieces, he really did create a musical masterpiece.

Changes for this production include a greater emphasis on choreography. Lee Proud enlivens ‘Tango: Maureen’ with bold staccato moves, and ‘On The Street’ features what I can only term ‘trolleyography’ (my apologies). I also ‘enjoyed’ (that is entirely the wrong word) the greater emphasis on the physical manifestation of Angel’s (Layton Williams) suffering. It’s crushing to see one so previously optimistic now frail and legion-spotted, Williams seemed to actually shrink as he’s carried, child-like by the steadfast Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) to his hospital bed. The medical, feverish spin on ‘Contact’ gives the scene an extra dimension as the pulsations of Angel’s waning heartbeat echo the beats of the rave music. A touching addition occurs when Collins gives his coat to Mimi (Philippa Stefani) during the final, the same coat stolen from him at the beginning and later recovered by Angel. It’s a lovely way to bring the narrative full circle – the coat being a motif of care, love and solidarity throughout.

Amongst the stellar cast, Williams, O’Gorman and Stefani truly excel. Williams is a very sweet yet feline Angel, and his backflips (in five inch heels, no less!) rightly issue a rapturous response, while O’Gorman is a mature and grounded Collins, his voice rich and deeply emotive. Stefani is utterly refreshing as the tragic, addicted Mimi, her shivers are palpable, her vulnerability blatant as she sways precariously during ‘Light My Candle’. While I am pretty much guaranteed to weep during Collins’ reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’, in this instance Stefani elicited yet more tears from my normally bone-dry eyes during her tender renditions of ‘Without You’ and ‘Goodbye Love’. The cracking of her voice was almost too much for my already bruised heart to bear. I must also mention Lucie Jones in what seems like a breakout role (a far cry from Elle Woods and the naïve Cosette), her Maureen is brilliantly eccentric and insolent; she is infuriating and endearing all at once – a difficult task to achieve! To top off an altogether excellent production, Anna Fleischel is fast becoming one of my favourite set designers. More mobile than the Broadway original, the huge industrial framework spins about and evolves into bridges, staircases and tiny studio apartments.

Guthrie’s production is everything I want from RENT and more, he stays faithful to the original production which has seared its way into many a heart and mind, while inserting just enough twists to ensure the musical remains fresh. It’s a crying shame that Larson isn’t around to see the profound influence his work has had over the last 20 years, but the world of musical theatre will remain ever grateful for his progressive artistic insight and undeniable talent.

RENT plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April. For all further tour dates please visit

Layton Williams (front centre) as Angel in RENT. Credit: Matt Crockett.

Monday 27 March 2017

The Miser

Garrick Theatre
25th March, 2017, matinee

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” – Pierre Bourdieu

Director Sean Foley has assembled a group of comic actors of a high calibre for a reworking of Molière’s The Miser which aims to bombard the audience with laughs but skimps on the play’s social comment. I admire his approach: a bold adaptation which is in the style of Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow. It’s all very knowing, there are lots of in-jokes, and everyone looks like and acts like they’re in a Molière play from 100 years ago. Essentially, this production of The Miser is a big mugfest where theatre’s the joke. The result is a rather refreshing although not always first class comedy.

Foley’s and Phil Porter’s ‘free adaptation’ has remained quite faithful to the plot. The miserly Harpagon tips his staff with notes on elastic string, he frantically mops up spilt wine from the floor to pour it back into the bottle and his stinginess is so legendary that he once tried to sue a mouse for eating a bit of his cheese. Not wanting to have to pay for lavish weddings or expensive marriage dowries, he has a plan to marry his children off to people they don’t want to be with for financial gain. This includes marrying his son Cléante off to an elderly woman and planning to marry her daughter (whom Cléante really loves) himself. And although set in 17th century Paris, the script references Sports Direct, portrays Harpagon as having echoes of Philip Hammond, and uses French names Shia LaBeouf and Matt LeBlanc as expletives. It’s not as roguish or cynical as Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope nor is it as playful as David Hirson’s Moliere-inspired La Bête because it does away with the verse. Yet there are some good visual gags and funny bits of wordplay (probably also in Molière’s original). But what’s so enjoyable about this production is its irreverence and its asides to the audience, mainly down to the efforts of Lee Mack.

Lee Mack is very funny. Lee Mack is very funny. His years as a stand-up comedian and work on pun-heavy sitcom Not Going Out means he can deliver lines thick and fast, at a pace suitable for the production’s style. His Maître-Jacques has all the unwillingness of a comedian who has signed up to do a 12 week run in a West End play. But his performance as the butler cum harpsichordist cum chef cum horseman cum hangman cum gardener provides the most fun. At one point he confiscated the Daily Mail from an audience member and shouted that it lies, especially regarding its theatre reviews. He quotes Michael Billington’s 3 star review and calls Valère an everyday Don Juan in Soho (playing next door at the Wyndham’s). He misremembers lines (or appears to) then moans at the audience that he’s got to translate it from the French. Mack has the farceur’s knack of making it seem as if the wheels are about to fall off at any minute and he’s barely keeping it together.

Of course, not all actors can be as talented as Lee Mack(!).There are no inward, psychologically driven performances in this production; it’s all about exterior. However, Matthew Horne and Katy Wix are deliciously hammy as lovers Valère and Elise. Ryan Gage is also hilarious as her brother Cléante: a powdered spendthrift fop who skips around the stage and whose wig has a tendency to fall off. It is low humour to have the two of them have different speech impediments, but it allows their performances to go hysterically over the top. Wix in particular is on another level of haughty aristocracy.

Griff Rhys Jones as the titular Harpagon puts in a memorably physical performance: intense eyes, false teeth, shabby hair, frail gate and clearly having a lot of fun in the role. Furthermore, it is a drainpipe full of water collapsing on his head that makes him realise that the love of his life is his money, asking ‘what is a man without his money?’ Similar to the gulling scenes in some of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, and in the box tree scene in the National’s excellent Twelfth Night, it is perhaps astute of Foley to use water as a dramatic means of revelation. Stand-up Andi Osho and Ellie White (The Windsors) impressively complete the main players.

Part of what Foley has done is turn the play into a typical farce: animal heads fall off walls, doors bang into people, feet go through chairs. But what worked wonderfully in his production of The Ladykillers and what is exploited to dizzy comedic heights in The Play that Goes Wrong doesn’t quite meet the same standards here. For example, a physical sequence leading up to the end of act one where a deer head falls onto Griff Rhys Jones seems mechanical and formulaic. However, Foley’s efforts, for the demographic to which this will appeal, are mostly very satisfying.

The Miser runs at the Garrick Theatre until 3rd June.

The company of The Miser. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Wednesday 22 March 2017


Curve, Leicester
21st March, 2017

I’ve so far avoided seeing and reading any of GB Shaw’s plays. Put off by their length and perceived (and literal in terms of the library’s bookshelf) dustiness, no amount of star casting and glowing reviews has tempted me to see a Shaw play yet. Pygmalion’s story of the common flower girl turned lady by an ambitious, hedonistic phonetics professor is widely known. Here, Headlong’s Sam Pritchard has pruned the text and that does away with all the conventional trappings of recent revivals – big costumes, big beards(?), fussy sets – which has resulted in a production that makes the play as fresh as a daisy.

We’re in a kind of contemporary London; Shaw’s references to specific parts of London such as Drury Lane are there and there are some impressive bits of film directed by Geej Ower set in London, in a black cab and in Eliza’s bedsit. It’s in this last setting where we see Eliza sat on her bed miming to Audrey Hepburn’s (actually Marni Nixon's!) version of Loverly from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical adaptation My Fair Lady. The production also uses contemporary dress and there are a few additions to the text mainly for comedic effect - and they really are funny!
I’m reminded of Jamie Lloyd’s comment ‘treat every classic as a new play’. Pritchard strips away the reverences often given to classics. Indeed, Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design accentuates the play’s theme of ownership, and creates a theatre experience that is fun, captivating (especially technically but not exclusively) and, perhaps the biggest achievement, acknowledges the play’s status as Classic (with a capital C) yet makes it contemporary. Shaw’s dialogue does have its funny moments, helped by the freshness of the delivery by this cast and it’s exploration of how voice/accent is often intricately linked to someone’s morals, intelligence and class is still (bizarrely) relevant.

Pritchard’s input doesn’t swamp the play at all.  Updating old plays can seem jarring, a hurdle which Pritchard has cleared by embracing those contradictions. In fact, the beginning of the play brilliantly emphasises the production’s interest in Shaw’s text and plays with the play’s interest in the seemingly inseparable link between voice and person. As the lights go down we hear a recording of the beginning of a workshop where a group of volunteers read the play aloud. They are told not to over accentuate the lines and to, vitally, read the lines in their normal accents. This recording of the opening scene plays over actors on stage miming their words, apart from Eliza. They play multiple characters irrespective of age and gender, again apart from Eliza. This first scene is set outside a theatre with people looking for cabs in the rain. What would normally be one of those long exposition scenes is turned into something so absorbing: you’re not always sure whether someone is speaking or if it’s from the recording. Even when you can tell it’s a recorded voice, the dialogue is so well mimed that it creates a sense of dislocation, one that is echoed in different ways throughout the play.

In a scene where Eliza is in Higgins’ microphone booth, she insists that a drop of alcohol has never passed her lips. However, Higgins is messing with the sound controls and it makes her voice high-pitched. Higgins’ voice alteration thus undermines what she is saying and takes away the intent and denies her her self-respect behind the line, emphasised by the fact that she is at that moment locked in the booth. I think there’s a section in Dan Rebellato’s Theatre & Globalisation where he discusses the use of radio microphones used in West End ‘megamusicals’ and how they can diminish the liveness and immediacy of the work. In the last scene of Pygmalion, Eliza and Higgins take their radio mics off, their voices no longer distorted and amplified in surround sound. It is now clear to hear where the voices are coming from and who they belong to, Eliza now changing her accent.

There are rewards in cutting the text so much. The opening of Act Two is the party which I presume is usually a much longer scene. Here, it is reduced to a cycle of ‘How do you dos?’ and ‘Thanks awfullys’ (I don’t have the text to hand) and we only see a glimpse of the scene through a strip in the fourth wall. Yet, the minimal, ritualistic dialogue, champagne glasses and nice clothes are more than enough for us to understand the scene. However, some things are perhaps compensated. Eliza’s romance with fellow commoner Freddy is rushed but it’s typical of Pritchard’s production that he gives us exactly the amount we need with nothing superfluous.

But it’s not just the incisive directorial decisions that make this Pygmalion striking. In typical Headlong fashion, video mapping, projections, stark lighting and a contemporary design make the production so watchable and dynamic. There’s no risk in Alex Lowde’s design getting dusty. Simply stylish and devoid of all the fuss, it features a glass box which amplifies and intensifies what I imagine could otherwise be an impotent traditional drawing room scene.

Alex Beckett’s Professor Higgins is an obsessive, petulant, technologically-relaint phonetic professor, unlikable but not without vulnerability. He wipes down the microphone with sanitizer after Eliza’s used it and makes his closeness with his mother very believable. Towards the end of the play, he has a line about offering to adopt Eliza. I’m not sure if it specifies how it should be delivered in the text but Beckett does a very good job at saying a line which is eye-rollingly ridiculous today as if he realises that it’s a preposterous proposal. Furthermore, in a scene with his mother, Beckett makes what Higgins is complaining about so credible and contemporary, not at all from 1913. Equally impressive is Natalie Gavin. Her Eliza has a northern English (perhaps St Helens?) accent. This not only makes sense considering how the north and its accent is often perceived and represented but it also allows Gavin to build a very believable, feisty, yet still likeable, Eliza, moving away from the sometimes cutesy traditional cod Cockney portrayal. There are a host of other strong performances not least from Ian Burfield as Alfred Doolittle. His speech about 'who can blame him' for getting some money out of Higgins' proposal is addressed directly to the audience: doing so makes it highly political, allowing us to ask the same questions of ourselves.

Another success for Headlong, I could watch this production again and again. It makes a play which has got a bit of a reputation of being an old war horse relevant and fun and vital again.

Pygmalion plays at Curve, Leicester, until 25th March as part of a UK tour. Details can be found at

Credit: Manuel Harlan

The Murder At Haversham Manor*

Curve, Leicester
20th March, 2017

Following their less than successful productions of Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and James and the Giant Peach, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have regrouped to present the classic whodunnit The Murder at Haversham Manor. I wish I could say their efforts were more rewarding this time, but, alas, this production was a catastrophe of wobbly sets, forgotten cues and nauseatingly amateurish acting.

It would be difficult to single out anyone in particular for praise as the entire company seemed to be involved in a contest of one-upmanship to decide who could deliver their lines in the most inappropriate, wildly erratic, or downright daft manner. However, Dennis Tyde was especially out of his depth in the role of loyal butler, Perkins, his mispronunciations and apparent lack of awareness of what was going on around him was astounding, while a gawping Max Bennet was equally clueless as Cecil Haversham (yet, inexplicably, seemed exceedingly pleased with himself). Director/Designer/Dramaturg/Voice Coach/Choreographer/Actor Chris Bean tried his best to hold the dismal proceedings together, but his desperation was palpable and I left feeling nothing but pity for the man who was but a twitch away from a full on nervous breakdown.

Yet all this pales in comparison to the shoddy production values. Collapsing furniture, forgotten music cues and flaming props ensured the play descended into chaos. A health and safety nightmare, the deathtrap of a set did its utmost to injure and inebriate the already floundering cast. The evening was nothing less than a hotchpotch of pandemonium, bloodshed (not of the fake kind) and confusion. The most, though faint, indeed, praise I can give the company is that their efforts to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ were commendable however unadvisable. 

*The Play That Goes Wrong is an absolute masterclass in farce. It delivers what it says on the tin, and then some. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, and the result is one of the most hysterical nights out at the theatre I’ve had in a long time.

The play exemplifies perfect comic timing, expertly choreographed pitfalls (there is a skill in making something look so dangerous!), and a cast which are thoroughly dedicated in making you both root for and pity them (cheers and applause were almost as common occurrence as laughter). I don’t want to give away too much, as some of the stunts must be seen to be believed, but the precision that must be involved in creating such mayhem is astounding. While it might seem natural to focus on the slapstick elements of a farce, mention must also go to the superbly performed word play – circular scenes, unwitting puns, misread lines – all build the comedic momentum, and the play as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as each line brilliantly complements the physical action.

The cast are the epitome of ‘teamwork’ as they gel and feed off of each other so well. There is more than a slight resemblance to a young Peter Sellers in Patrick Warner’s gangly Chris Bean, his frustration and anger are kept bubbling just under the surface as his hopes and aspirations crumble before his eyes. Katie Bernstein is a gem as the naïve stage manager who overcomes her stage fright to upstage the leading lady (a hilariously overblown Meg Mortell), while Jason Callender (Jonathan/Charles Haversham) almost steals the show with his ‘playing dead’ act.

The Play That Goes Wrong is the most raucous, belly-laugh inducing show around and I defy anyone not to leave the theatre with a smile. Mischief Theatre made their name with this personification of Murphy’s Law and schadenfreude, and since then have gone from strength to strength, winning an Olivier award for Best Comedy, and making their debut on Broadway this week. Long may they reign in the realms of theatrical farce.

The Play That Goes Wrong plays at Curve until 25th March as part of a UK and Ireland tour. For all tour dates please visit
Credit: Helen Murray

Monday 20 March 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Old Vic, London
18th March, 2017, matinee

As young theatregoers who only got into more frequent theatregoing in recent years, we have the pleasure of discovering 20th century classics for the first time. Whereas others might have seen Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker in Trevor Nunn’s West End production a few years ago or even Adrian Scarborough and Simon Russell Beale at the National in the 1990s, our first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s debut play (and the first one of his we’ve seen) were Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. This 50th anniversary production (at the same theatre where it had its London premiere no less) is in safe hands with David Leveaux’s production, his fourth major Stoppard revival.

Part of the joy of the play is that it imagines the lives of the peripheral characters in Hamlet, its offstage and unexplained events. The titular quote is so offhand and extraneously tacked on in Hamlet that I often miss it completely, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often underdeveloped that we don’t really care as to their fate. Stoppard both fleshes out and strips back the double act, they are neither here nor there but retain a sense of character, whether that be the childish games played in lieu of decisive action, or the philosophical musings which seem at once both deep and hollow. This pseudo-cerebralising and metaphysical posturing - upon diverse topics from the reality of death to the nature of acting - mirror those in Hamlet, but the wittiness and meta-theatrical spin they’re given positions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in an intriguing state of purgatory. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fatally tied to their roles in Shakespeare’s play, as they are to their roles in the court of Elsinore, and the progression towards their inevitable deaths. It is a play constantly (frustratingly?) on the cusp of action and in which there is simultaneously an abundance of meaning and an abyss of meaninglessness. A far from original idea, I’m aware, but the play really is a Renaissance set companion piece to Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

Radcliffe and McGuire make an effortless double act, easily believable as best friends, and snappily perform the tautological dialogue which creates a seamlessness to the repetitive cycle. Radcliffe suggests a quiet naivety to Rosencrantz, almost apologetic in his cluelessness. On the other hand, McGuire relishes the part of Guildenstern, occasionally affecting a gormless smile, pondering over life’s meanings, grandstanding in a way which Radcliffe doesn’t, but none-the-more enlightened for it. David Haig, meanwhile, is having a huge amount of fun and is on marvellous, scenery-chewing form as the tricksy Player. He gleefully commands his troupe of players-cum-prostitutes who provide a vivacity aided by Corin Buckeridge’s spirited jazz music.

Anna Flieschle’s design gives the Old Vic’s stage an impressive depth, surrounding it with blue, cloud-effect screens. The effect allows Leveaux’s production and Stoppard’s text to breathe; there’s an ethereal quality to the characters’ philosophising, while creating a special void in which the two men exist, cut off from the other characters in the play. The vast stage, which reveals glimpses of backstage areas, only holds a ladder and a light at the beginning of the play, a reference to theatre and the fascination between on and off spaces in the play – indeed, one play’s exit is another’s entrance. The rumination on presence/absence is superbly rounded off in the dying moments of the play. The sudden blackout on Rosencrantz is (from where I was sat anyway) so well done it was like magic, similar to the earlier disappearance of the barrel in which Hamlet hides on the boat.

Having read some of Stoppard’s plays, including the head-scratchingly confusing Hapgood, to the intellectual sagas of The Coast of Utopia and Arcadia, it’s amazing to think his linguistic and theatrical ingenuity was present from his first play. However, this clearly isn’t a great play for women (granted, neither is Hamlet!), arguably the largest female role is actually played by the virtually mute Alfred (Matthew Durkan), and having three white men as the leads suggests there is something to say regarding diversity. Yet this is not to detract from the commendable efforts of Leveaux and his talented cast and creatives, or Stoppard’s cunning skill as a playwright.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays at the Old Vic until 29th April.
Joshua McGuire, Daniel Radcliffe, David Haig and company. Credit: Tristram Kenton

Sunday 12 March 2017

Ugly Lies the Bone

Lyttelton, National Theatre.
11th March 2017, matinee

One of the reasons I loved Lindsey Ferrentino’s play – receiving its UK premiere after a short run at the Roundabout Theatre Company, New York, in 2015 – is because it confidently pinpoints a specific time and place, one that perhaps doesn’t directly relate to UK audiences. It’s sure of the story it wants to tell, and praise has to go to the National for what seems like a bold bit of programming.  But the play, its characters and themes, relate to wider issues and stories repeated all across America and here as well.

Florida, 2011. Jess, a soldier, has returned home after her third tour of Afghanistan with traumatic injuries. Nothing is the same: she’s in pain, she can’t get a job, and people treat and look at her differently. What’s more is that the world around her is changing. NASA’s shuttle programme is about to have its final launch bringing mass redundancy for its workers and the closure of many of its surrounding businesses. But Jess has the opportunity to use new virtual reality technology as a pain management tool; as the unseen and reassuring ‘Voice’ (Buffy Davis) behind the VR says, it can build her ‘the perfect world’. From what I’ve read of other reviews, most have said that the play seems thin material compared to the production and its design. It’s true that the play pushes the frontiers of what the National – and theatre! – can achieve in terms of technology. But the virtual reality used in Es Devlin’s design formally enhances the play’s interests in reality and illusion.

Devlin’s design and Indhu Rubasingham’s extraordinary production mixes the realism of cinema (and there’s something about the play which seems fit for the screen) with the uber-theatrical. The stage is a Florida skyline bending up into a semi bowl which, when unlit, looks moonlike. When lit, the night-time traffic of Titusville glows orange. At other times the sky is starlit. In the VR scenes, feathers and snow fill the stage. The ramped stage holds bits of furniture magically when not in use. The look and feel of the play is stunning. At one moment, Jess is in her VR world of snowy mountain-scapes, calming blue lakes and growing Christmas trees. At once it is strange and intangible, real for Jess but not quite real for us, beautiful but also somehow ‘other’. She comes crashing out of this world when the stage suddenly becomes the convenience store. Complete with a tacky Christmas tree (oh so different from the elegant pine trees of the VR world), shelves of Pringles and Reece’s bars and slushy machines, the design is now real and detailed.

There are battling ideas of reality and illusion in Ugly Lies the Bone. There is a moment when Jess absentmindedly suggests that paradise must have palm trees but it’s pointed out that there are palm trees on every street in Florida. What, then, is paradise? At another moment, Jess is disgusted by the idea of working in a Pizza Hut because she ‘wants a real job’. It’s also contradicting when Jess wants to build Titusville the way it used to be in VR form. There is a growing sense that (hinted at in Devlin’s design) the two worlds become blurred. However, no moment where reality is questioned is more moving than when Jess’ mum, suffering from dementia and having not seen her for years, instantly recognises her, not even blinking at the scars. It’s a problematic moment, not least because Davis plays both her mum and the ‘Voice’.

Kate Fleetwood is intensely captivating as Jess, aided by very detailed make up work. However, her performance is more than just her prosthetics. Physically, the amount of energy and precision is staggering. From conveying Jess’ stiff joints and spasming muscles to her difficulty at sitting down and her outbursts of anger, Fleetwood’s performance is all-consuming. Emotionally, she also suggests the character’s suffocation, as well as her frustration and confusion at how much her old life and home is disappearing.

There were bits over which I wasn’t quite sure. Short scenes moving locations make for a structure which is episodic, almost fractured, giving it a sharp pace. It also reflects the psychological effect of displacement. We’re hurtled about in this setting. There are lots of things to look at, bits we recognise along with bits which are stranger (again, harmonised in Devlin’s set), reflecting how the setting is the same but also different for Jess as well. However, the short scenes also make them feel underwritten and the technique that the last line of each scene is loaded with a bigger meaning became a laboured.

Olivia Darnley is impressive as Jess’ sister/carer, Kacie. Kris Marshall and Ralf Little also do excellent work. Marshall as Casey’s sap of a boyfriend, living on disability benefits, has been dressed in flip flops and bright colours. He looks like someone who might run the rollercoaster at a coastal theme park in an episode of Scooby Doo, a mere skate board and a cry of ‘Spring Break!’ away from becoming a Florida stereotype. However, Marshall invests in him something deeper and more dimensional.

Little, as Stevie, Jess’ old boyfriend, suggests a well-conveyed haplessness, insisting that he once had top clearance in his admin job at NASA but who is now resigned to wearing a hat with a springy space shuttle in his job at the gas station/ convenience store. It’s interesting how he notices how her eyes are still as charismatic as they used to be and sort of falls back in love with her. But, is that real or is it merely nostalgia, an escape from his unhappy marriage?

Actually, I think Marshall and Little are clever casting: the former is in his early forties and the latter in his late thirties, but both look younger and are mostly associated with younger and more comedic roles. Likewise, I got the impression that Kelvin and Stevie were older than they looked and initially acted.

Thinking about the casting even further, there is a sense with the four main characters that they’re all clinging onto their youth but are on the verge middle age. Memories of before Afghanistan pervade the play, whether it was Jess working as a teacher or watching the space shuttle launches from the roof. There’s a sense that these characters could have perhaps once existed in a coming-of-age type play. There is a parallel here to how Florida’s space coast was once vibrant and exciting but now almost extinct. There was an article in the New Yorker last year about Atlanta, Georgia, having a similar story with most of its once full casino complexes now empty. Overall though, Ugly Lies the Bone puts a female lead (Fleetwood) and three key creatives (Ferrentino, Devlin and Rubasingham) centre stage and the results with this production are very refreshing.

Ugly Lies the Bone plays at the National Theatre until 6th June.
Ralf Little and Kate Fleetwood. Credit: Mark Douet.


Almeida, London
11th March 2017, matinee

In an age where diversity, modernity and innovation seem to carry the majority of critical clout in theatrical circles, not to mention my disinclination to be lumped with the doddery, backward views of some critics (see Michael Billington’s article – unfounded, imo - lamenting the lack of ‘classics’ at the National Theatre), I can’t help but think it is pretty uncool to be a fan of Shakespeare. Clichéd, stuffy (I overheard two audience members discussing the need for a ‘Shakespearean voice’(???), a detractive notion which no doubt puts people off engaging with older plays), and lacking a ‘real’ knowledge of theatre (and by that I mean a broad knowledge of playwrights with an inclination toward the contemporary) – all insecurities I feel as a result of a personal partiality to the Bard.

Yet, honestly, I adore Shakespeare. And as a self-confessed Literature swot, there’s nothing I love more than analysing 16th Century drama. Yes, the theories are usually timeworn and oft repeated, but I’m still young, so they’re new to me (something I feel more seasoned theatre-goers should remember when criticising revivals of plays they’ve seen numerous times as being old-hat), and I find them oh-so-fascinating! I could spend pages proclaiming the beauty of the slightest deviation from iambic pentameter, the significance of sexual/animal/planetary imagery (take your pick!), or the intricate mechanics of tragedy with a capital ‘T’, throughout many of Shakespeare’s plays, and thus I wear my fan status with pride. However, I have recently found myself at a crossroads. Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet at the Almeida has dumbfounded me. Why? Because for once I find no inclination to analyse. It seems futile to attempt to bestow any sort of intellectual grandstanding onto his production because it is so profoundly moving, intimate and humane it would feel wrong to do so.

Icke’s production is one of painful intimacy. Although aware of the outer world and political on-goings in Denmark, this is very much outside and separate – the Fortinbras/Norway conflict is relayed through news reports on screens – laying bare the bones of Shakespeare’s text as a tender family drama. This may be a royal family, but we get the sense that this could easily be any family dealing with the anguishes and throes of mortal life. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is furnished simply with modern yet homely décor, and we become witness to the inner workings of domesticity in crisis. Tender moments, such as Claudius and Gertrude’s dancing before falling asleep on the sofa show theirs to be a marriage of love rather than convenience, humanising the characters in a way that is often overlooked. While I found Angus Wright’s Claudius a little too understated, bordering on the monotonous, Juliet Stevenson is a very sympathetic Gertrude; her panic attack following Polonius’ murder is believable and places her in a position of conflicting loyalties. From the initial seeds of doubt planted by her son, when the magnitude of the familial breakdown eventually dawns on her, her actions are understandable, but nonetheless distressing.

The driving force behind the tragedy in this case is grief. The family is torn apart and turned against each other by an overwhelming sorrow. Hamlet (an extraordinary Andrew Scott) is quietly intense, coming across as both ordinary (mortal) and exceptional (certainly in regards to feeling/emotion) with natural ease. The softness with which Scott speaks brings a prosaicness to his philosophising while simultaneously radiating an exquisite truthfulness. The soliloquys were fresh, Scott’s nuances making me wonder why Hamlet hasn’t always been performed like this, it was as if I were hearing these words for the first time and understanding them with a profound clarity. ‘To be or not to be…’ seemed so natural, obvious (in an enlightening way), and true. Similarly, the utter weariness with which he resigns himself to death – ‘the readiness is all’ – is both heartbreaking and feels like an organic progression within the character’s journey. We feel his sense of futility and his sheer exhaustion through which he has doggedly continued despite spending all his available energy on mourning the loss of his father and sense of familial belonging. Introducing an element of personal experience and perspective, I couldn’t help but consider Scott’s Hamlet as a man suffering from a deep and profound depression. I welcomed the toning down of the ‘antic disposition’ – aped or no – as this felt like a more concrete and relevant approach to Hamlet’s mental state. His tearful breakdowns were poignant and his quietly dejected speech all too familiar to those with experience of depression.

Never before has the Ghost (David Rintoul) felt more tangible. The bond between father and son is to the fore, from holding hands with the lost and despairing Hamlet, to the aching beat with which Hamlet briefly recognises something familiar in the leading Player (also David Rintoul). Similarly, the affection between Hamlet and Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is genuine, they kiss and caress and care about each other; parental intervention seems the ultimate tragic force in their doomed relationship. Further adding to the domestic tragedy is the subtle insinuation that Polonius’ (Peter Wight) famed misnomers and forgetfulness may be a result of some sort of degenerative illness, such as Alzheimer’s – his pauses just a little too long, his stature a little too pitiable to feel fully comfortable in ridiculing him. This afforded his scenes a poignancy beneath the humour.

One of the most striking alterations made by Icke is Claudius’ confession/prayer. Usually uttered alone in the presence of God, here Hamlet appears onstage in front of him, creating the impression of his confessing to Hamlet. While the staging is ambiguous – does Claudius ever look Hamlet in the eye? – and I’m still unsure whether the scene was wholly real, a dream, or some sort of split frame reference, it’s something to ponder…

The culmination of such a sympathetic and humane interpretation of the text and character’s motivations and states of mind is realised in a scene of dazzling emotional beauty. The Ghost reappears to guide his family into the afterlife – visually reminiscent of the earlier wedding party: balloons, fairy lights, a warm bliss peopled by old friends (Polonius, Ophelia). On paper this seems incredibly mawkish, but in Icke’s hands it is anything but. Cynical critics and academics may shy away from it, but ‘sentimentality’ is not a dirty word. This ending is sentimental in the best sense; moving, compassionate, satisfying, and it fits the production direction to a tee. By being so recognisably human it feels thoroughly fresh and vital, and thus relevant to all our lives.

There is a tendency for an overreliance on technology to feel cold and gimmicky, while reductively distancing us from the human contact unique to live theatre. Yet Icke’s use of a live video feed, transmitted to screens throughout the auditorium and a large multiplex of screens onstage actually enhances the drama. Nuances of expression are captured and magnified – we see Claudius’ minute reaction to the play, we see the second Gertrude resolves to die in the steadfast glimmer of her eyes – all details that may otherwise be missed by those at the back of the theatre (as I was). Furthermore, the omnipresence of the camera concentrates the sense of voyeurism, as every detail of the family’s lives is broadcast in every unflattering angle. Icke has managed to unite modern cinematic techniques and live theatre with startling efficacy, and I’m entirely won over by it! The action is played out to a soundtrack of Bob Dylan classics – another triumph - a subtle reference perhaps to social disorder and political unrest, but the main point I got from it was the folk aspect; the generational effect, the passing on of stories and the roles our predecessors play in our lives. Plus, it’s just great music!

While I imagine Icke’s production is not without its detractors – some of his decisions may be controversial to purists – I loved it. Clear, compassionate and modern, Icke has transformed a well-worn, ubiquitous classic ‘Tragedy’ into a contemporary family drama that wouldn’t feel out of place on the ‘new releases’ shelf of any bookstore. But, for me, his greatest coup de theatre lies in his ability to make this academically minded blogger abandon thought and embrace feeling. I doubt I will ever see Hamlet the same again.

Hamlet plays at the Almeida until 15th April.
Andrew Scott as Hamlet. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 8 March 2017

What the Butler Saw

Curve, Leicester
8th March, 2017

First performed posthumously in 1969 after Joe Orton’s murder two years previously, John Lahr described Orton’s What the Butler Saw as transforming the landscape of farce from the world of daydream to that of nightmare. This has been well realised in Nikolai Foster’s perfectly pitched production which allows the comedy in Orton’s text to triumph naturally and without unnecessary gimmicks.

Michael Taylor’s impressively stylish design lulls us into a false sense of reassurance from the off. The curtains open up like an Edwardian end-of-pier peepshow as suggestive of the title to reveal Dr Prentice’s private psychiatric clinic. At first sight the brilliant whiteness and numerous doors are not dissimilar to the design for Matthew Warchus’ production of French farce, Boeing Boeing. But French windows and middle class characters aside this is not the cosy farce Orton would initially like us to think it is. The minimalist and uncannily stark space becomes a canvas upon which the plot, along with the characters’ minds, unravels. There is nowhere to hide, no corners within which to withdraw, just a series of doors – the comings and goings amount to dizziness.

Naively forced into the ensuing mayhem, prospective secretary, Geraldine (Dakota Blue Richards), enters from the forestage at the start of the play, a subtle but interesting suggestion that she may be the sole sane person in the madhouse. Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound) spends most of the job interview trying to seduce her, insisting that she strip for a ‘medical’ examination. On top of that Mrs Prentice (Catherine Russell) enters wearing a slip accusing a bellboy of attempted rape. What ensues is a series of mistaken identities and double crossings ranging from accusations of incest to necrophilia and transvestism to murder.

This is further complicated by the arrival of government inspector Dr Rance, exceptionally played by Jasper Britton, whose own sanity and authority is undermined by him screaming with wide eyed hysteria. He reminds us that in the madhouse of Orton’s play power is no guarantee of rationality: "Unusual behaviour is the order of the day… We've no privileged class here. We practice democratic lunacy". The character’s post-Freudian psychoanalytics, exploring increasingly complex links between sexuality and the human psyche, are all the funnier due to the dedication with which Dr Rance believes his own fabricated hypotheses.

Amid the farcical pandemonium, Orton shrewdly lampoons authoritarian hypocrisies and conventional perceptions of binaries such as reality/illusion, gay/straight, male/female and sane/insane. Our inherent need to compartmentalise all aspects of life, rubber stamping even intangible concepts such as ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ to create a semblance of ordered hierarchy, is ridiculed to the extent that these notions no longer have meaning.

Heading up the stellar cast, Rufus Hound tumbles around the stage, desperately trying to stop his predicament from spiralling even further out of control. Catherine Russell also stands out as his ‘fur coat and no knickers’ sexually frustrated wife. Towards the end of the play her voice mannerisms mimic a ‘Lady Bracknell’ like superiority as the conclusion escalates to a subversively devilish twist on The Importance of Being Earnest.

Razor sharp and performed at break-neck speed, there is not an ounce of fat on the play or Foster’s production, even if this is sometimes detrimental to our ability to keep up with the action. Orton’s play is transcendentally funny, socially relevant, and subversively political. Living not too far from the estate where Orton grew up, it is fitting to celebrate local talent and culture as well as remembering, fifty years on from his death, the playwright’s groundbreaking legacy and incremental effect he had on British theatre.

What the Butler Saw runs at Curve, Leicester until 18th March before playing at Theatre Royal Bath from 27th March – 1st April.

The Cast of What the Butler Saw - (c) Catherine Ashmore

Thursday 2 March 2017


Birmingham Rep, Studio
2nd March 2017, matinee

This is the first of Sean Foley’s ‘free adaptations’ of a classic play that’s opening within a month. Later in March, I’m seeing his take on Molière’s The Miser which opens at the Garrick, but first it’s the world premiere of Amédée, based on Eugène Ionesco’s 1954 play.

Frustrated playwright Amédée is in the 16th year of writing his play and it doesn’t sound like he’s got far with it. While he spends his days surrounded by books and failing to write a speech, the only break that his run down wife Madeleine gets from cleaning is when she goes to work. He’s a procrastinator of giant proportions; his mantra is ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ as Madeleine sings out in an Annie-style jibe. But it’s not quite the offbeat domestic play it perhaps first seems.  They live in some sort of contemporary Britain-turned-repressive police state. Also, rather more pressing, their lives are dominated by a dead man (possibly a lover, and possibly murdered by one of them) who is growing by the day and causing mushrooms to sprout all over the place. As a 15ft corpse bursts through the bedroom door threatening to fill the living room, a line from Pinter’s No Man’s Land sprang to mind: ‘A metaphor. Things are looking up.’ As they worry about the future of their marriage, the corpse grows and grows and grows. Compared to The Bald Soprano, Amédée doesn’t quite push the Theatre of the Absurd aspects to the former play’s heights. Given what the term ‘freely adapted’ implies, I don’t see why Foley hasn’t pushed the absurdities even further (then again I don’t know the original play) to make the political resonances about chaos taking over reason and logic shine over the more domestic side of the play.

Having said that, I think there’s a lot of clever thinking beneath Amédée. There is sense to be made out of the apparent senselessness. For instance, Madeleine’s zero hour contract job seems plausibly at home in the dystopian setting. And as the first act builds to a rising sense of chaos with phones ringing and lights flashing, Amédée laments the loss of the citizen’s advice bureau (although I can’t help but wonder if the CAB is one of the butts of that joke as well). Furthermore, there is an interesting portrayal of artists in the play. As Amédée goes floating off into the night’s sky claiming how (paraphrasing) he’s a writer and that he has good intentions on his side, one of the pub-goers scoffs ‘Artists!’ Even Madeleine’s calls for her husband to ‘go and write your play’ begin to seem like a diminutive scorn after a while. Despite the play’s military-ran setting, it is perhaps a prescient point that artists are rarely the ones looked up to in moments of political crises. However, it’s a shame that some of the jokes fall flat and, considering it has ‘action-packed farce’ on the publicity material, some of it is underwhelming (which is surprising bearing in mind Foley’s pedigree for comedies), in an otherwise well-measured production.

Ti Green’s design provides us with an eleventh hour coup when the walls, furniture, towers of books, and boxes of Amédée and Madeleine’s apartment disperse so we’re outside a pub, with graffiti on the wall and CCTV overlooking the street. This Orwellian, urban, repressive setting makes the outmoded apartment of hoarded books, kitchen appliances and packages look almost cosy by comparison. Josie Lawrence brings both comic touches (the orgasmic joy that getting rid of the corpse gives her) and pathos to the role of Madeleine, supporting her husband but also craving– as she points out numerous times – for an ordinary life. Trevor Fox suggests a humorous absentmindedness to the titular playwright, easily confusing dreams and reality and wondering whether he’s perhaps in the life of his play. In one moment as he and his wife are lugging the corpse out of the window he pauses to admire how beautiful the square looks from there.

To have two bits of new writing (three including the upcoming One Love) at the Birmingham Rep in such short time is something to applaud. And for all those playwrights who are submitting work for the Papatango Prize this weekend, I imagine that the procrastinating tendencies in Amédée will act as a nudge to remember to do so.

Amédée plays at the Birmingham Rep until 11th March, 2017.

Josie Lawrence as Madeleine /  Trevor Fox as Amédée
Credit: Ellie Kurttz