Friday 29 September 2017

Sunset Boulevard

Curve, Leicester
28th September, 2017

Following the publicity surrounding Glenn Close’s absence during the run of Sunset Boulevard at the ENO last year, Ria Jones proved exactly why audiences should never grumble about seeing an understudy/standby. Now Jones is centre stage once more, leading Nikolai Foster’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton, and Don Black’s musical melodrama, based upon Billy Wilder’s 1950 film. Having never seen the film nor the musical before, I had few preconceptions other than knowing a couple of songs and famous quotes, but I can now safely say that Sunset Boulevard may be not only Lloyd Webber’s most sophisticated work, but also the strongest musical production I have seen at Curve during Foster’s reign.

I defy anyone not to be utterly swept away by Lloyd Webber’s music, the moment the overture began I was transported to a world of glamour, melodrama, and that distinct romantic melancholy that one associates with the decadence of ‘Old Hollywood’. The anguished strings and soaring brass segments are wonderfully evocative and superbly played by Adrian Kirk’s orchestra. For all the stick ALW gets for recycling his (and possibly other composer’s) scores, the familiarity here, for once, succeeds in contributing to the atmosphere of nostalgia and the slightly sinister repetition echoes Norma Desmond’s desperate attempts to resurrect the past.

In Norma Desmond Lloyd Webber has found his female Phantom, or his Mama Rose, and as a star vehicle the musical is a triumph of dramatic intensity which truly allows its leading lady to shine. And boy does Ria Jones get her teeth stuck into the role! She epitomises a certain quality which transcends the constraints of musical theatre – Stephen Sondheim has said he favours actors that sing over singers that act, a preference which ensures emotional impact – Jones shows us why this is such a vital directorial choice. Jones can act and sing, but what’s more, she acts through her singing. She has one of those voices that in her wavering vocals, fragile diction and sublime crescendos resonates pure emotion; ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ are the definition of ‘showstopper’. Jones’ Norma is variously youthful and decrepit, belting and frail, sonorous, desperate and, ultimately, unhinged. A true tour de force of a performance and a real coup for Foster’s production.

Providing fine support, Danny Mac’s narrator-cum-writer-cum-toyboy, Joe Gillis is more than just a pretty face and he holds the show together with easy confidence. As a down-on-his-luck writer he is a likeable charmer, yet as Norma tightens her grip on him, Mac brings a darker complexity to his performance. Joe is sympathetic, caring, but cruel at times too. His disenfranchisement is brilliantly conveyed in the Act 2 opening number, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, a black and jaded tribute to the fickle fads and falsehoods of Hollywood. Special mention also to Adam Pearce, having seen him before only in ensemble roles I had no idea he had such a powerful voice. His Max is an ever-present shadow, his rare snippets of insight into Norma’s past intrigue and his voice is hypnotic and clear. Pearce exudes a gravitas and stillness with great poise.

Foster’s stylised production perfectly evokes Hollywood with all its cardboard facades, glitzy shallows and eternal optimism. Colin Richmond’s set locates the action in the cavernous studio 18 of Paramount Pictures, the wheeling on of set pieces such as an elaborate staircase and 50’s diner within this space places the musical as a kind of story-within-a-story, complete with rolling film cameras to the sides of the stage. Within this most filmic of structures Douglas O’Connell’s video projections is highly evocative in capturing the dreamlike flashbacks to Norma’s stardom. Combined with Ben Cracknell’s lighting, an effective use of colour-palettes ranging from the blues of LA swimming pools to lusty and murderous reds, this gauzy aesthetic creates a truly haunting atmosphere which underpins the tragedy.

The only downside to Foster’s film set-esque take is the decision to use model cars – shells, really – on trucks wheeled about by skivvies. I understands where this fits in the direction he takes the production, but it left the cars chase scenes feeling a little underpowered.

That aside, Foster’s high quality production is an absolute joy. I was sucked in and swept away by the whirlwind that is Norma Desmond and the fantasy of La La Land. Jones is a star and thoroughly deserves all the acclaim she will undoubtedly receive for her performance. Curve really is going from strength to strength at the moment.

Sunset Boulevard plays at Curve until 30th September before embarking on a national tour. 
For further venue details please visit

Ria Jones in Sunset Boulevard
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Our Town

Royal Exchange, Manchester
23rd September, 2017

The Royal Exchange foyer is a vast hall, a light and spacious public space with welcoming seating and bars, a shop, exhibitions, free WiFi, and imposing and impressive marble columns, glass dome and original trading board which points to its former existence as a cotton exchange. In the centre of the Great Central Hall is the in the round auditorium, a glass and steel chamber both intimate and immense, like Shakespeare’s Globe. Visiting it for the first time this Saturday, I feel it’s what the designers of Leicester’s Curve might have had in mind: a sort of inside-out theatre where audience members and actors are in the same flow, sharing the front of house space, being able to easily walk past the dressing rooms and offices, and peer into the auditorium through the doors or on a little black and white monitor, eavesdropping on the company’s vocal warm up. And really strikingly, an exhibition on the mezzanine features artwork depicting audience’s views of what theatre should be, including shunning theatre’s sense of self-importance. The Royal Exchange pitches itself as diplomatic, a place for everyone to enjoy and participate in theatre without its reverence.

I mention this as Sarah Frankcom’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), and the play itself which seems to lend itself more easily to this type of production, beautifully encompasses the feel and ethos of the Royal Exchange, giving the middle finger to Gay McAuley’s taxonomy and resulting in one of my favourite uses of theatrical space I’ve seen. The different areas of stage space, audience space, front of house, and backstage are still there but the boundaries between them are blurred – in theatre and production alike. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking Fly Davis hasn’t done much with the design. The sort of tables and chairs you’d see in a school or town hall are spread about the otherwise bare stage where actors and onstage audience members sit and chat together, whilst some other actors blend into the audience responding to the Stage Managers’ request for questions. Frankcom’s production exemplifies theatre as a collective act of community. She peoples her stage with a sense of community, from spectators and performers (many of whom are regulars at the Royal Exchange), to a choir, youth theatre members and the theatre’s own company of elders. At times, we see actors running out of the space into the café dispersing in between the tables as if fleeing through the town. Large lighting banks around the auditorium shine the warm light of the New Hampshire morning sun into the auditorium and casts shadows of actors circling the space onto the frosted walls.

The ‘Stage Manager’ (played with warmth and unassuming superiority by Youssef Kerkour) walks onto the stage and addresses the audience, placing us at once in Manchester in 2017 and in a New Hampshire town at the start of the twentieth century. It’s an American play, we’re well aware, but he is the only American voice on stage, giving him an authenticity and proximity to the play as we know it and a distance from the multitude of local voices in this production. The wealth of British, often Mancunian accents is appropriately jarring, and the old colloquialisms sounded particularly alien in modern mouths – ‘I declare’ being a favourite, I can’t help but think of the words spoken in a seductive voice in the manner of one of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Belles! Yet such anachronisms make the play work by highlighting Wilder’s dialogue, making us sit up and listen to what the characters are saying, as opposed to letting the words wash over us in favour of wallowing in what could be the sepia-tinged nostalgia of the setting (a criticism levelled to many misunderstood productions of the play).

Over the three acts – each respectively focusing on birth, love and marriage, and death – we see big questions about the nature of life pondered amongst the minutiae of the daily routine; heady ideas about our place in the country, the universe and the bigger picture of everything that’s ever been and ever will be juxtaposed against the tawdry rhythms and humdrum setting of Small Town, USA (cue Tim Minchin lyrics!). After starting with a wide introductory ‘setting of the scene’, the lens is then focused on neighbours and high school friends Emily (Norah Lopez Holden) and George (Patrick Elue). Although we only see snapshots of the embryonic stage of their relationship, these scenes are written and performed with such care that we connect with them despite their brevity, from being privy to their windowsill conversations across the street to witnessing a private conversation in a diner. There’s a moment when Kerkour mimes an intricate preparation of two ice cream sodas in this latter scene that is so well-observed, from popping in the straws to licking a bit of cream off his thumb, that he paints the rest of the scene very vividly. It is a moment indicative of the spatial brilliance of Frankcom’s direction that we are at once in a theatre in Manchester in 2017 and in New Hampshire, early 1900s. And if that all sounds a bit Little House on the Prairie, the scenes leading up to the wedding include a surprising and brutal amount of honesty. Wilder’s sharp insight into human imperfections, fears and the admission of flaws I found strangely moving.

It is the third act, however, that feels most potent. The notion of death is sincerely performed by the actors walking barefoot through the space. We see Emily’s funeral, her reluctance to want to leave the mortal world and her attempt to relive her memories. With a bit of design seemingly inspired from Bunny Christie’s People, Places and Things design, along with the rose-tinted, beautiful lighting from Jack Knowles and moving sound by Ben & Max Ringham, a pretty birthday scene from Emily’s youth is evoked. We effectively see her realisation that we live ignorant of how precious life is. Seeing this surrounded by the fast moving, urban landscape of Manchester, makes this moral seem a bit obvious, or twee, and there is also a sense that the concept of Brechtian ‘epic theatre’ which Wilder exemplifies offers a queasy blend of superiority and inverted snobbery that comes with the sort of didactic motives behind the techniques. In a city that has recently had its (un)fair share of tragedy I’m sure none of its citizens need reminding of how precious life is. Perhaps because of this context, the play comes across as a little naïve in its moralising. It seems that it could have been written by someone when drunk. I don’t mean that in a bitchy way, more that it is reminiscent of those big, philosophising and sometimes maudlin conversations we have and concepts we think through after a drink. Or in moments of tragedy.

In the programme, several playwrights have written a bit on why it’s one of their favourite plays. Their short few paragraphs probably articulate what’s distinctive and powerful about the play more than my review can. I suppose it’s considered a masterpiece for its mix of scale and the mundane, its hope, and its evocation of the here and now (the universal) in its depiction of distinctly someplace else. For the playwrights in the programme, Our Town seems to be a piece to which they keep returning. Perhaps I too need to revisit the play to be more enamoured by it. And if not the play, the Royal Exchange is a space that I certainly will want to return to again and again.

Our Town plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 14th October, 2017.

Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez Holden in Our Town.
Credit: Stephen King

Sunday 17 September 2017

Rules for Living

Royal and Derngate, Northampton
17th September 2017 – matinee

‘Should I read a play before I see it?’ is a question that I’m sure plagues many theatre-goers, and the answer is, of course, entirely subjective. As a rule, I prefer to read Shakespeare’s plays before seeing them, otherwise I would spend the entirety of the play trying to catch up with the language, rather than enjoying the specifications of the production. But when it comes to contemporary drama I err towards ignorance, and Simon Godwin’s regional premier of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living (which debuted at the National Theatre in 2015) is a good case point upon which to ponder my stance.

I have read Rules For Living and now, having seen it, I can say that the cons of doing so far outweigh the pros. The pros: I read the play a year and a half ago when I thought there would be little chance of me viewing a staged production any time soon given that it had premiered only a year before. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! I thought it was clever, witty and fast paced enough to hold my attention during what was a rather difficult time for me. However, Godwin’s production has highlighted how my own expectations can hinder enjoyment of the present theatrical experience.

Naturally, the play is much more cohesive onstage. Briefly; brothers Matthew and Adam have returned to their family home for Christmas with their partners in tow. Old rivalries rear their ugly heads and merry chaos ensues. The (necessarily) vast amount of stage directions in the script are a little overwhelming, hence the complex ‘rules’ that bind each character (eg. ‘Matthew must sit and eat in order to tell a lie’) translate far better onstage and as a consequence are much funnier - imagine Ayckbourn crossed with Churchill's Blue Heart. When I read it I was acutely aware that this was no ordinary farce. Sure, Holcroft superbly skewers the foibles and shortcomings of the middle classes (as all good farces do); barbs are directed towards the daytime tv nourished fads of gluten/lactose/carbohydrate-free diets and the ridiculous amount of pressure we place on ‘family time’ during national holidays which inevitably sucks all the fun out of them. But her ingenuity lies in the way she does this via an interesting spin involving the conventions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I admit to having a personal interest in the subject as I’m currently over a year into CBT myself, so it was refreshing and reassuring in a way to see a play which tackles this issue in a humorous way. Yet, I’m now aware that I subjectively placed more focus than is perhaps warranted on this aspect of the play – I found that, onstage, the convention is handled in a more flippant manner, and it veers close to being merely a superficial shooting point from which to create havoc, which means that what is in reality a complex psychological concept here veers close to the edge of oversimplification.

This isn’t to say that play isn’t funny – it’s really, really funny – this is more a musing on the way our own biases prejudice our readings and interpretations. Holcroft has crafted an unerringly British psychological farce, in which the best way to respond to the absurdities of modern life is to have a damned good laugh at them! The play really succeeds in analysing the minutiae of competitive family hierarchies and the friction between wanting to please, wanting to win the metaphorical ‘game’ of life, while also wanting to be independent. Both Matthew and Adam have entered into the family profession – law – even though their hearts lie with acting and cricket, respectively, while the imposing figure of their father, Francis, clouds their lives on both a conscious and subconscious level.

Jolyon Coy and Ed Hughes do a stellar job with Matthew and Adam, especially Hughes who displays a tireless array of accents and whose incredulous reaction to his surroundings is a sheer joy. However, I couldn’t help but imagine how Miles Jupp and Stephen Mangan (Matthew and Adam in the original NT production) would have played these roles. Some of the lines, inflections and mannerisms of the characters seemed tailor made for them. I admit, this is yet another pitfall of being overfamiliar with the play to begin with. Elsewhere, Carlyss Peer is a marvel of energy and optimistic naivety as cringeworthily inappropriate actress, Carrie, and Jane Booker is pitch perfect in her portrayal of the classic ‘keep calm and carry on’ type matriarch, Edith.

Godwin admirably makes the play his own, his direction of the building tensions and increasingly ridiculous ‘rules’ the characters must adhere to pays off in gleefully theatrical fashion, culminating in what is possibly the messiest, and most entertaining food fight I’ve seen onstage. I don’t envy the crew tasked to clean up before the evening show! Lily Arnold’s design is ingenious. It’s satisfying on an aesthetic level, particularly in the unbelievably quaint auditorium of the Royal theatre, and, as opposed to Chloe Lamford’s abstract, and slightly obvious boardgame set up in the National Theatre production, Arnold situates the action in a firmly established ‘family farce’ territory. The set is brightly coloured, homely, and feature classic staples of farce (a staircase and doors for well-timed entrances) which work well as a cosily familiar counterpoint to the more modern aspects of Holcroft’s script.

Rather selfishly, I have used Holcroft’s play, and Godwin’s production, as a cipher for analysing my own foibles and presumptions, and so I urge everyone to take this as a parable on how you should value every production for its own merits, and not, as I have done, pre-empt a play based on its past. Rules For Living is a confident and unashamed farce in a theatrical landscape where farce is seen as rather old hat, or uncool, and for all of Holcroft’s unapologetic slapstick and populist jibes I admire her. Godwin’s production is a joy, and is guaranteed to make you cringe, empathise, and most of all, roar with laughter.

Rules for Living plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 30th September and then tours.

In the foreground – Ed Hughes as Adam and Jolyon Coy as Matthew (background - Laura Rogers as Nicole and Carlyss Peer as Carrie) Photography by Mark Douet.

Tuesday 12 September 2017


National Theatre, Lyttelton
7th September, 2017, matinee

*Please note that this was an early preview performance.

The Lincoln Center Theater production of J.T. Rogers’ play chronicling the Oslo Peace accords in 1993 was the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play earlier this year. Now playing a short run at the National before the West End, it’s easy to see why this play about what might be, to some, a dry topic has become a big hit. Its exploration of the intricate complexities of political negotiations and the practicalities of the human exchanges at the heart of them and their effects on global peace is gripping and often hilarious.

And what a surprise it was for me to like it so much when I sat in row D of the Lyttelton stalls before it started and thought: ‘I know next to nothing about the Middle East. Why have I come to see this?’ And for the first 10 minutes or so, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Bartlett Sher’s production is slyly simple. Michael Yeargan’s set is an ambassadorial room made up of no more than few pieces of furniture and some white walls. There is an air of stripped theatricality about it. The walls at the side look like theatre wing flats, and we see the door (with its metal structure that tells us it’s a part of a stage design) brought on and wheeled into position. The play starts (with no magisterial music or dramatic lighting changes) with Toby Stephens walking on stage preparing to begin. Soon enough, the play launches into mid-scene where charming couple Terje Rod-Larsen (Stephens) and his wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) are having drinks with the Norwegian Foreign Secretary in a scene which frames most of act one in a flashback.

Soon enough, I thought it was going to be three hours of a House of Cards/ Stuff Happens crossover, with jokes aplenty about bureaucratic red tape and facile nods to current affairs. ‘Doesn’t Stephens look like Stephen Campbell Moore? What accent is he doing? Oh, there’s Peter Polycarpou. Look it’s the actor who played ‘Gary’ in that episode of Only Fools and Horses – what a demeaning role that must have been. OK let’s get on and pretend I’m watching the Oslo peace talks’. Well, how stupid of me to try to second guess the play.
Stephens and Leonard masterfully address the audience, introducing us to characters and settings, customs and relationships. Ben Brantley nailed it when he wrote that the role of Terje and Mona is to dramatically steer the play forward just as they did so politically with the negotiations. Oslo is a slow burner that draws you into the action. The space fluidly takes us from the negotiating room to outside of it, from Norway and Tunisia to the USA and Israel, from warzones to rooms with classy wallpaper thanks to 59 Productions’ projections and the company’s navigation.

Stephens conveys the mixture of gentle vanity and genuine good will as key mediator, wanting to stay truly impartial but also not being able to help himself in wanting some praise. But it is a perplexing role. I understand that Terje, the man himself, was present and a central part of the negotiations, but this does leave Rogers with the question of what to do with this man from a dramaturgical viewpoint. A background presence, he is sort of akin to a protagonist in a Marc Camoletti sex farce. As if Israel and Palestine are his two lovers he needs to keep in separate rooms, he occasionally comes across as bumbling dinner party host. This might be partly due to Stephens’ clipped accent and polished diplomacy. I’m not so much as criticising this aspect of the character and play, but am more bemused by it. Lydia Leonard’s Mona (who mostly leads the audience as well as controls Terje) becomes the character – along with Terje to be fair – that the two sides fall in love with. It’s such a strong performance.

Over the course of the play, whether through back channels, or via third party telephone calls, or over waffles, the ‘business’ at the heart of Oslo had me on the edge of my seat. It is a political thriller and we feel the weight of what’s at stake (especially thanks to Peter John Still’s sound). We hear that Palestine is over a vast ocean where great ships look like skippers. Whereas many have drowned or turned back going over that ocean, Qurie and Asfour (the Palestinians) want to be the first to succeed in making peace with Israel. Peter Polycarpou, Nabil Elouahabi and Jacob Krichefski lead the superb ensemble. I got the feeling that at any moment they could break out in hysterics over a joke or ferocious, spittle-firing anger over the slightest disagreement. Because of Rogers’ writing and under Sher’s assured direction, the jovial and the barbed are never far from each other in Oslo. There are elements of high comedy as well, which often sees characters working together against the odds. At one moment, German holidaymakers walk in on the secret talks leaving the two factions having to work together to pretend they’re the decorators. At another, they prank Terje by saying they’ve had enough and are walking out on the negotiations. They swap jokes whether at the expense of their wives or their cultures. There are also plenty of grin-inducing tactical idioms à la Frank Underwood, such as “the Prime Minister isn’t going to cut down a tree bearing fruit” and “sometimes we’re the pigeon and sometimes the statue”.

The whole cast (remarkably for what was an early preview) do much more than simply not allow the play to swamp them. They carve out memorable and individual characterisations, including Howard Ward’s blustered Norwegian Foreign Minister and Geraldine Alexander’s pleasing housekeeper and cook. As with many plays, such as The Westbridge and Elmina’s Kitchen, the nourishing qualities and cultural differences of food can make or break a relationship and heal feuds.

At the end of the play, Stephens breaks the fourth wall once more, coming down into the stalls and imploring us to look at the glimmer of light through the crack in the door. In a less accomplished piece of storytelling, the final message of hope about global politics could seem quite glib. But by that moment, I was so wrapped up in this story and these people, many of which whose friendships outlasted the actual peace deal, that I was whisked along by the play’s ambition and optimism in mankind to make peace. I walked out of the National thinking that, like Christopher Shinn’s Against, although Oslo doesn’t give a solution it’s not bashful about wanting to find one to the world’s political problems.

Oslo runs at the National Theatre until 23rd September and then transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2nd October to 30th December

Lydia Leonard and Toby Stephens in J.T. Rogers' Oslo. Credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Sunday 10 September 2017


National Theatre, Olivier
9th September, 2017, matinee

As somewhat of a Stephen Sondheim fan, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that my prior knowledge of his early masterpiece, Follies, boiled down to just three songs (‘Broadway Baby’, ‘Buddy’s Blues’ and ‘Losing My Mind’) and a rather sketchy idea of the plot. Yet with this confession also came the opportunity to experience the musical with fresh eyes, and I can’t think of a better first experience than Dominic Cooke’s latest production at the National Theatre. A lavish production, the reinstating of some original songs, a cast of acting royalty, and the simple fact that Sondheim is possibly the most revered musical theatre composer still working today – with the immeasurable clout the very promise of this revival brings it would be easy (lazy) to write it off as a solid gold ‘HIT’ with all the predictability of the gushy fan-cum-wannabe-critic before even seeing it. Yet, in all honesty, this production lives up to those expectations and delivers all the drama, humour, tragedy, glamour, smarts, ingenuity and humanity that is synonymous with Sondheim, with added style and pathos.

As with Company, Assassins and even Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim and James Goldman (book) subvert traditional dramatic and musical conventions relating to time, character and plot; instead of presenting a straightforward ‘storyline’, their creation is more a collage or moodboard of experience. Part memory play, part vaudeville revue, the seamless cohabitation of the past and the present, the real and the fictional, the glamorous and the mundane lays the foundations for an exploration of the binaries that govern life, and their fractious consequences. The result evokes a haunting and creeping melancholy that all too often cracks through the veneer of the showbiz ‘razzle-dazzle’ of the traditional ‘Follies’ chorus girls, whether that be the fading lights of the aging starlets, the bitterness of a loveless marriage, or the regrets over long-lost relationships that could have been. The fact that all this is conveyed without the dramatic constraints of a beginning, middle, and end, or even intricacy of plot (it’s deceptively simple, even uneventful), means that we are instead challenged to really get under the skin of these characters, and experience things through the fractured prism of their memories and biases – which is discombobulating in its intensity.

Cooke’s production enhances the ghostliness of the musical as the figures of the younger characters’ selves linger onstage, perched upon staircases, or sat majestically upon the crumbling debris of the old Weismann Follies theatre in all their elaborate finery. Vicki Mortimer’s design is a decadent triumph, juxtaposing the lustrous bejewelled and befeathered satin dresses of the chorus girls with the seedy and slightly grotesque setting of the ravaged, soon-to-be-demolished theatre. The bright lights that once heralded the darlings of the Broadway landscape now flicker sadly, and foreshadow (in hindsight) the betrayals and dissatisfactions the characters face, particularly towards the end when the ‘Follies’ sign fleetingly illuminates the inner morpheme, ‘lies’.

The musical numbers are effectively staged by Cooke and choreographer, Bill Deamer; the vaudeville-esque pastiches fizz with glitz and a fond familiarity (‘Who’s That Woman’, in particular), while the simplistic blocking of the character-led songs effuses fragility and emotional honesty. Amidst a starry cast, Imelda Staunton is charismatic and gut-wrenching as ever as Sally, who is living in the past and still holds a candle for old flame, Ben (Philip Quast). Staunton’s ‘Losing My Mind’ is a natural highlight and worth the ticket price alone. Peter Forbes conveys all of Buddy’s complexities and conflictions with aplomb, his ‘The Right Girl’ is punchy and mournful in equal measure, while ‘Buddy’s Blues’ expertly straddles the line between pastiche, satire, and tragedy. In fact, the entire ‘Loveland’ sequence is a masterpiece in itself. After a low key start, Janie Dee comes into her own in the second half as Phyllis’s resentment comes to a head in deliciously caustic fashion with her gutsy, barn-storming number, ‘Could I Leave You?’. Among the great (in all senses of the word!) supporting cast, Tracie Bennett leaves the biggest impression as the experienced and resilient movie star, Carlotta Campion, threatening to steal the show with her belting solo, ‘I’m Still Here’.

After a bit of a lacklustre season for the Olivier theatre, the National has ensured its reputation has once again skyrocketed with this smartest of revivals. Sondheim and the National seem a natural fit, and Follies proves why; Cooke’s understanding of the necessity for both spectacle and character delivers a lustrous glimpse into the underbelly of showbusiness and the spangled warrens of the human psyche. I’ll eat my hat if Follies doesn’t get several Olivier nods/wins come April!

Follies runs at the National Theatre until 3rd January, 2018.

In addition, Follies will be broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on 16th November.

Company of Follies at the National Theatre. Credit: Johan Persson

Friday 1 September 2017


Almeida, London
30th August, 2017, matinee

Against: (preposition) In competition with; In contact with by leaning; Into sudden contact or collision with; In opposite direction to. The word’s clustered consonant sounds seem a little odd when the word is spoken. Why has Christopher Shinn given his play this title? Perhaps it sums up the essence of violence. The play’s protagonist, a Silicon Valley billionaire tech guru-turned philanthropist named Luke, goes against the status quo by travelling the world on a altruistic mission to bring peace to the people; he has been reportedly told by God to ‘go where there is violence’. He wants to penetrate the culture and create a lasting movement that seeks to stop violence in its different forms, help communities reform after tragedy, create infrastructures that encourage rivals to start peace talks, and let those methods be passed on worldwide.

We, at least I anyway, can see past his privilege of fame and fortune (more so than some of the understandably cynical people he tries to help) and see that he genuinely wants this to become more than a fad or a hashtag. He’s willing to stay longer than the news crews and implores that he’d like to eat local rather than at the more commercial food court in the next town over. Not totally a pariah, he does connect with a few people. The mother of the high school shooter finds solace in him; at the very least he provides an ear for her, refusing to sign off her son as born a ‘wrongun’ like the rest of her community has. When she gives him her son’s watch, it starts working again, a reminder that he has magic qualities for some.

Ian Rickson has put a huge amount of trust in the play to stage it like he has. A screen at the back of the stage simply gives the location of each scene on Ultz’s sleek design, with identical wheel-on chairs. It’s not at all ‘tricksy’, with most of the actors, props and a stage management member visible ‘offstage’. Minimal props, doubling cast members and Ultz’s impressive costume and wig design do the hard work, taking us from a rocket factory to a motel room, an Amazon-esque distribution facility (the company is called Equator here), a university campus, outside a prison, a shattered family home and so on. The play has a huge ambition in way of plays from the late 80s/ early 90s by playwrights such as David Hare, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner, and more recently writers like Lucy Kirkwood and (perhaps to a lesser extent) James Graham. Plays with scenes of varying length that go from interior to exterior, from on horseback to an aeroplane, from a TV studio to Downing Street, from a sauna to a restaurant demonstrate a breadth and scope that suggests a playwright’s refusal to not allow the page to limit what makes it to the stage. This style allows Shinn to capture and explore multiple contemporary, and sadly familiar, issues: high school shootings, police brutality, campus sexual assault cases, unappreciated workers stuck in menial jobs, exploitative bosses, addiction, relationships being replaced by sex as a need for instant contact or relief.

In the interval, someone in front of us said ‘this isn’t going to end well’. She was right. In the second act, Luke’s naivety that he thought he could change the world begins to show. He starts questioning his reasons and his faults. It is rightly pointed out that ‘violence’ has infinite meaning, scope and effect: by only reporting sex workers’ stories of abuse, Luke is inadvertently enacting ‘violence’ upon all other sex workers by perpetuating the stigma that they face in society; in cancelling his tour of the equator warehouse in order to visit a conflicted drug addict, Luke neglects the Equator staff which has grave repercussions for its workers; in refusing to love until his mission has succeeded Luke causes a ‘violent’ rift between himself and his would-be-girlfriend, journalist Sheila. In a world of cause and effect where everything has its opposite, its ‘Against’, it becomes obvious that Luke is fighting a losing battle: violence begets violence, which begets love, which begets intimacy, which begets violence. And so on. And, in his unavoidable shortcomings, the people he wants to help eventually, and inevitably, become his downfall. There’s an element of hubris involved with the character, which proposes that to pin hopes of world peace on one man is merely a tragedy waiting to happen.

Ben Whishaw has been perfectly cast as Luke. He looks well-groomed, smart and healthy but not vainly so; energetic but in a focused way; enigmatic and likeable; he comfortably carries off concerned philanthropist still with a hint of California Cool. Amanda Hale is a quietly assuring presence throughout as Sheila, an earthy contact point for the people Luke meets on his odyssey. Her earthiness against his loftiness. Her frustration at Luke’s obliviousness and his occasional mis-prioritising of issues provides a subtle tension. However, the character feels a little underdeveloped, other than her feelings for Luke I’m not really sure what else motivated her.

Shinn’s play is large and sometimes too didactic and having the feel of a lecture. I don’t think I was the only audience member to have foreseen a sex joke when a voice apparently told Luke to ‘Come’. I also remain unsure as to how we were meant to feel about the end of act one: does Luke collapse from another ‘vision’ or is it simply a case of post-erection blood rush dizziness, and (more pressingly) can he tell the difference?

Alongside Luke’s journey of self-discovery, we see (at least) two really interesting subplots worthy of further development. The first is a creative writing professor who used to be a sex worker who, in trying to encourage his tutee of being more open minded about her story, tries to impose his own socio-political views on her and tries to read into her personal relationships. Another is in the Equator warehouse, a company started by one of Luke’s competitors which aims to think big, open and green. Yet, we see the impact of the regulations enforced on the ground level workers of such large organisations, where everything is banned from discussion and an impersonal atmosphere is created.

It’s not as theatrically satisfying as something like Gloria, which shares some of Against’s issues, but it asks big questions and is given the space, both aesthetically and formally, to grow. The dialogue sometimes feels a bit too right-on, as if he’s provoking reactions from the audience. However, Shinn seems to have his finger on the pulse with Against. He paints a world of fear and violence, where warehouse workers are as robotic as the real robots taking over their jobs. He portrays a culture of screens and buzz words, from ‘relational purchasing’ as an alternative to capitalism, to ‘actualising’ feelings for someone, to ‘benchmarks’ and even ‘active shooter’. But he also offers a world where, just maybe, better community cohesion could be the answer to the world’s problems.

Against runs at the Almeida Theatre until 30th September.

Ben Whishaw in Against. Photography: Johan Persson