Wednesday 10 July 2019

Amélie The Musical

Haymarket Theatre, Leicester
9th July, 2019

‘When a finger is pointing up to the sky,
 only a fool looks at the finger’

When Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie premiered in 2001 it catapulted European cinema back into the mainstream and made a worldwide star of lead actor Audrey Tautou. The tale of a quirky, kind, yet socially withdrawn young woman (and a side cast of equally kooky characters) captured the hearts of many filmgoers thanks to Jeunet’s unique sense of humour and his ingenious employment of magic realism. As one of my all-time favourite films I was parts excited, intrigued and nervous about a musical adaptation. Some film-to-stage adaptations work wonders (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots, Billy Elliot, Hairspray), while others leave something to be desired (Strictly Ballroom was a big disappointment), and following a less-than-stellar performance on Broadway, I approached Michael Fentiman’s new UK production of Amélie with antsy trepidation. Long story short, I needn’t have worried. Fentiman conjures all the phantasmagorical splendour of the original, while Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen’s honeyed score elevates the story in its melancholy highs.

Craig Lucas’ book perhaps skimps on plot in favour of Messé and Tysen’s character-driven songs that are rich in imagery and near modernist-like lyricism. Beloved characters from the film are cut or condensed, and less time is spent on the mechanics of Amélie’s mission to spread joy amongst strangers and friends. One of my favourite subplots regarding a long-dead husbands ‘missing’ letter to his jilted wife is relegated to only a few lines here, and I missed the whimsical recital of proverbs during Gina and Nino’s heart-to-heart. However, these omissions do little to detract from the charms of Craig, Messé and Tyson’s work. In several cases the adaptation even enriches the source material: Amélie’s childhood and relationship with her parents is fleshed out (with some gorgeous puppetry, might I add); the introduction of Zeno’s Paradox is a beautiful metaphor for Alie (and Nino’s) anxious hesitation and socio-philosophical bond; and Jeunet’s brief ventures into surrealism are expanded here into full-on hallucinogenic trips - Collignon’s comeuppance features a hysteria of dancing figs, and Amélie is given the Princess Di treatment with her very own Elton John musical tribute.

Messé’s music doesn’t quite eclipse the iconic bright minimalism of Yann Tiersen’s film score, but it’s nevertheless beautifully lilting, evoking the atmosphere of Montmartre while lending an intense depth of feeling to the show’s most emotional moments. The Bretodeau story is something of a simple plot device in the film, yet Lucas and co. place more emphasis on the restorative power and feeling of Amélie’s actions. Messé and Tysen's Bretodeau ‘open the box’ leitmotif synonymises the lost and found narrative themes and amplifies all the melancholy ecstasy of memory, epiphany and the transitory illusions of time. While I hesitate to mention any particular stand-out numbers, I felt that the music’s role in the production is to wash over you, inviting you into this strange yet recognisable world, and nourish the soul. Though rarely propelling the plot in the traditional sense of musical theatre, as a mood piece, the score is intrinsic and provides a window into Amélie’s psyche.

Matching the evocative melodies is Madeleine Girling’s Parisian Jungle-type set. Within a bohemian framework of ornate railway scaffolding, pianos transform into tobacco counters, grocery stalls and sex shops, and concealed behind the great clock of Gare du Nord lies Amélie’s apartment, a cosy cubbyhole hidden away from the constraints of time. The entire creative company have laid their talents bare, yet none of it would matter if we can’t get behind the protagonist herself. Audrey Brisson was born for the role. Her Amélie is cheeky, endearing, and just sharp enough to avoid any accusations of kitschiness. Wildly expressive, yet still at the most vital of moments, Brisson has a dexterity that compels, and her voice rings crystalline as a bell above the bustle of the city streets.

Brisson receives amiable support from an excellent cast of actor-musicians, most notably Johnson Willis as Amélie’s fragile guardian angel and frustrated artist, Dufayel, and a scene-stealing turn from Caolan McCarthy as a pitch-perfect Elton John. Despite sharing little stage-time, Brisson forms a believable and sweet chemistry with Danny Mac, cast very much against type as Amelie’s introverted love-interest, Nino. The union of Amélie and Nino is probably my favourite ever screen kiss. It’s a masterclass in understatement and quiet, yet furious passion, and Brisson and Mac recreate the moment on stage with romantic tenderness and a palpable electricity that pulsates throughout the pin-drop quiet auditorium. This swoonworthy finale more than lived up to my expectations.

Charming, eccentric, whimsical, but not without bite, Amélie has made a successful film-to-stage transition. Fentiman and co. have produced a piece that indulges the senses and excites the imagination, retaining the special qualities of Jeunet’s film while incorporating a flavour of their own in which this singular world unfolds. A must-see treat that deserves all the longevity of its predecessor.

Amélie plays at the Haymarket theatre until 13th July.
For full tour dates please visit:
Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in Amelie The Musical.
Credit: Pamela Raith

Saturday 6 July 2019

the end of history...

Royal Court, London
3rd July, 2019

Ethically, politically, pragmatically or personally?

When someone next asks me “What do you do with a Drama degree?”, I will respond with the above question.

On the blurb of the text for the end of history…, and in the publicity leading up to the production, much emphasis has been given to the 1997 setting and to Sal and David’s ‘leftist ideals’. This immediately gives us an impression of what to expect: New Labour, Labour of Love, possibly set in the lead up to or immediate aftermath of the election. But, like with Thorne’s more overtly titled 2nd May 1997 (2009), to second guess what the play is going to be would be to falsely label it as more obvious than it is. In fact, the play has three time settings: 1997, 2007 and 2017. The earliest setting is actually in November and sees Sal turn off the radio in worry when Blair’s name is mentioned.

This first act is definitely the funniest. Sal and David have got their three kids back home for dinner. The actual dinner isn’t the main event, and going by what we see and hear of Sal’s cooking it could be a write-off. Their youngest son is in detention, something they’ve encouraged to help him grow out of his experimentation with drugs. Their daughter Polly is back from Cambridge, still holding a grudge at why dad left her so quickly after dropping her off and beginning to feel inferior among the Cambridge elite. Their eldest son Carl is also coming home from uni, bringing his girlfriend Harriet to meet Sal and David for the first time. Harriet’s from a well-off family, much to the fascination of Sal: ‘How does someone own service stations… But do you own the – the petrol station… I don’t know, Little Chef?’ In fact, I would say it bemuses, even annoys Sal and David that Carl’s brought someone into the house who doesn’t have much of an interest in what her family does.

David and I have always made the kids take an interest’. Sal, page 17, the end of history…

In this scene, with all its humour and Thorne’s brio at creating and showing us (in such a short space of time) a fully believable and detailed family with a sense of their history and problems and where they are in the world and in their individual lives, I think this above line is crucial. David and Sal have brought up their kids to encourage them to be the best they can be; being inquisitive and keen to learn is a vital part of that. Books, among them Seamus Heaney poetry, are stacked around the room. There’s a phrenology head. The text also specifies that there are ‘artefacts from Sierra Leone, Hong Kong and Indonesia’ and the ‘odd interesting ripped-out article from a newspaper’ around the room. Two of their children, hopefully the third soon, are at university. This isn’t Reece Witherspoon in Big Little Lies yelling at her daughter that she must go to college, an education for the sake of credit and enabling a better position in the jobs market. Sal and David believe in education, and the good that it can do. They have debates around the table, quiz their children on famous quotes, make intellectual jokes. It’s entrenched in them that they believe in their children, their values, and that they will make good. Not just good for themselves, but for the world.

‘The challenge is how. The answer is people. The future is people, the liberation of human potential, not just as workers but as citizens’. Tony Blair, 1999.

They’ve lived through these values their whole lives and still live by them in each of the three settings. How these values conflict with their children, who by 2007 are largely leading their own lives and possibly harbouring different political views, is what creates drama, something greatly realised by John Tiffany and the cast. Polly is at the start of a potentially lucrative career, Carl is trying to climb the ladder of Harriet’s (they’re just about together) family business, and Tom is jobless and still living at home. The occasion this time is another family meal. Sal and David have news they want to share, Polly has phoned for a Chinese whilst mum and dad are at a petition, but Harriet ends up having cheese on toast because of her MSG allergy (it’s a mountain of cheese that we see – it doesn’t actually get cooked – Harriet’s the only one who eats some of the Chinese). The news is that Sal and David are not leaving them any of their money in their will, choosing to instead donate it in small parts to charities and the Labour Party. Their argument is strong: they don’t believe in inherited wealth, it only makes the rich richer and the poor no better off, plus the fact they don’t want to leave any of their problems behind. But it doesn’t go down well, especially because of Harriet’s presence in the room. But it’s Laurie Davidson’s reaction as Tom that’s the most interesting. Before bolting himself in the downstairs loo and attempting suicide, he’s at the back of the group most distant to Sal and David, staring into space. You can see his thought process of what this will mean for him. We’ve already seen that he’s not academic, struggling, not a part of the same jokes and references that the others share. For him, this conversely might make him feel like he now has to compete to be conventionally (financially) successful, something which his parents have never pushed onto them. But their reasoning is believable and noble. They do believe in their children, and I think that in performance there was something quite profound and moving about that.

"Fail to develop the talents of any one person, we fail Britain. Talent is 21st century wealth". Tony Blair, 1999

If anything bugged me about this, it’s that I couldn’t believe it. Maybe because I didn’t recognise my own upbringing or family in the play, maybe because I’m not as politically active as Sal and David, maybe because it can be hard to take something so noble and selfless (although whether it is selfless or not I suppose is another argument) seriously. But in the third act, the decision did make sense. In 2017, the family are preparing for Sal’s funeral. Most of the scene is made up of David’s eulogy for his wife. We hear her whole life, about her upbringing and career and politics and even time spent in prison. She’d lived her life by her politics and however futile one person’s efforts makes to the bigger political game, it suddenly all made sense.

Tiffany’s production transitions between scenes by the cast ripping off calendar dates between small vignettes of them living their lives in that time, all accompanied by an instrumental version of Imogen Heap’s The Quiet (great choice, it is quietly cinematic and suggests movement). Kate O’Flynn transforms from awkward, nasally young adult who absorbs and share’s her parents’ intellect and political leanings to working her way through life and experiencing her own compromises. But it’s Lesley Sharp who has gone the furthest to take her character off the page and into a rhythm where it’s simply like she’s just being the character: her nervous energy and oversharing, her small winces when she realises she’s overdone it, her belief in people to bring about change, however seemingly small. What’s so great about Thorne’s play (as well as his consistently interesting use of stage directions) is that it has made me pause to think but is all wrapped up in this absorbing family comedy.

the end of history… plays at the Royal Court until 10th August, 2019

David Morrissey and Lesley Sharp in the end of history... Credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 4 July 2019

The Color Purple

Curve, Leicester
3rd July, 2019

‘Yes, I’m beautiful and I’m here’

I first read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning The Color Purple two years ago after my mum recommended it for what seemed the hundredth time. I remember being stunned by Walker’s singular use of dialect, the striking, deceptive simplicity of her prose and the sensory envelopment it induced, as well as the importance of its themes within both BAME and LGBT+ literary culture. However, I’m embarrassed to admit, I didn’t absorb all the details of the plot – I remember a hazy sort-of synopsis, a brief, and thus unflattering, outline of a story one might tell after a pint or two – I remembered the hardships and cruelties Walker describes, yet the specifics eluded me. So at the close of Tinuke Craig’s production of Marsha Norman (book), Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s (music and lyrics) adaptation, I was struck by how uplifting the musical is. I came to realise that Walker’s narrative is one of hope – an obvious observation, yet one I somehow hadn’t previously connected with. This revival, a collaboration between Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome, is not without fault, but is irresistibly moving and thought-provoking.

We are introduced to a 14-year-old Celie (T’Shan Williams) and her younger sister, Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) playing children’s games on a scorching Sunday morning. As the town congregates at the local church whispers circulate about identity of  the father ofCelie’s unborn baby. Celie’s baby is torn from her arms by her preying, incestuous Pa, the first of many injustices Celie is dealt in this odyssey of heartbreak, suffering, forgiveness and, finally, happiness. The story unfolds beneath the social evolutions and set-backs of the Deep South in the early 20th Century which sees Celie sold into a marriage of servitude and abuse. Over time, she gradually learns her own worth and gains the power to fight back against her oppressors with the help of the strong women she loves.

While Walker constructs a coming-of-age narrative weaved throughout a lifetime of experience, Norman and co. don’t quite capture the decades-long extent of Celie’s struggle. The episodic structure of the piece has a jumpy effect; morsels of music are interspersed with lengthy scenes that occasionally come across as stilted. Conversely, Alex Lowde’s set focuses on the paradoxical stasis of Celie’s life in opposition to the headlong trajectory of the plot. The cavernous depths of the Curve stage are blocked out by an imposing wooden-clad wall, a physical barrier to Celie’s freedom and happiness. Lowde’s is a thoughtful design, yet I feel an opportunity was missed in not opening out the space more during the second act stages of Celie’s liberation.

Russell, Willis and Bray’s music draws upon jazz, ragtime and gospel, and it brims with woozy emotion, if a little structurally uneven at times. Although the orchestrated skittishness sometimes fits well with the action (eg. overlaps and musical rounds perfectly capture the insidious humour of the gossiping Greek Chorus, and the erratic motifs in Mister’s Song/Celie’s Curse soliloquises a thrilling combination of grief and self-flagellation), I often found myself wishing individual numbers were developed further (I’d have loved Shug’s ‘Too Beautiful For Words’ to have lasted longer, it was such a touching moment). The production comes alive through song, but the necessity to keep the narrative moving leaves us with truncated music that only fleetingly reaches its fullest potential. 

But, boy, when the score hits those highs the show soars. Shug’s charismatic talents are showcased in ‘Push Da Button’, a bluesy barnstorming anthem of female empowerment, while her duet with Celie, ‘What About Love?’, is a captivating and tender song about sexual and emotional development that deserves to become a standard of the musical theatre canon.

Joanna Francis excels as the worldly and enticing Shug Avery, capturing the muddle of maternal generosity and flighty flirtatiousness that provokes a sexual frisson with almost everyone she encounters. Elsewhere, Simon-Anthony Rhoden and Karen Mavundukure are a blast as the feisty on/off couple, Harpo and Sofia, and Ako Mitchell’s Mister is a toxic concoction of rage and self-pity hidden beneath a crisp veneer of false propriety. Craig’s characterful ensemble enliven proceedings and effectively ratchet up the easy, carefree atmosphere of the Juke Joint, bringing an infectious vibrancy to the stage. T’Shan Williams excels in the central role, portraying Celie’s transformation from meek victim to independent woman with a sweetness and fire that immediately endears one to her character. The power of her vocals is matched by her nuanced acting; Celie’s journey from despair to belief, love and hope is, in Williams’ hands, a believable and rewarding experience.

As an atheist it would be easy to approach the message of The Color Purple with cynicism. Yet, Norman, Russell, Willis, Bray and Craig attend to the source material with earnestness, allowing the story’s philosophy to ring true with simplicity and compassion, and without ever edging into ‘preachiness’. When Celie’s exultant belief reverberates around the auditorium with her final ‘Amen’, I defy anyone not to feel some sense of higher power exemplified in the natural wonders of our world and the resilience of the human spirit.

The Color Purple plays at Curve until 13th July and at Birmingham Hippodrome 16th – 20th July 2019.
T'Shan Williams and Danielle Fiamanya in The Color Purple.
Credit: Manuel Harlan.

Monday 1 July 2019

#ReadaPlayaWeek - June

Stunning by David Adjmi (2009)

 ‘Don’t let these people decide your life for you, don’t be a victim!’

Adjmi’s modern American tragedy focuses on the life of 16-year-old Lily, a naïve Syrian-American Jew living in Brooklyn, newly married to a man three times her age. Raised in a community of ‘business’ men, young housewives and luxurious lifestyles, Lily is brought up to believe her main purpose is to look ‘stunning’ and make babies. That is until she hires Blanche, a middle-aged African-American PhD graduate turned maid, who introduces her to the liberating world of books, semiotics, classical music and wine-tasting. As Blanche and Lily embark on an illicit affair the tension mounts as Lily’s husband Ike’s shady business venture takes a turn for the worse, and secrets from Blanche’s past return to haunt the family.

It begins as a satirical exploration of consumerist philosophy – Lily, Ike and co. are initially portrayed as vapid fashionistas who think that speaking in Pig Latin is the height of sophistication. Adjmi nevertheless gets to the heart of a community which is not unsympathetic, peppering the text with cultural idioms and flashes of affection, emphasising the importance (and inextricable nature) of family and security for these Brooklynites. So when a stranger (Blanche) intrudes on this world, the frisson of danger and excitement is thrilling. There are shades of Miller’s A View From The Bridge in Adjmi’s treatment of community, family and betrayal, alongside his emphasis on physical strength and presence in the Ike/Blanche stand-off, which is wonderfully offset by the omnipresence of a Ghost that initially only Lily can see. Stunning addresses issues such as race, gender, sexuality, class, wealth and abuse with fluidity and assurance, while also posing questions on the status of ‘belonging’ in a multicultural, yet hierarchical society. All this affords the play a sense of timeless gravitas on a par with the great American Tragedies of the 20th Century.

Published by Methuen Drama

Goats (2017), by Liwaa Yazji, translated by Katharine Halls

“Poor man. He thought he had the truth, but all he had was some other fantasy”

Goats was a product of the Royal Court/British Council New Writing for Theatre Project in Syria and Lebanon. Not only does such a project help to internationalise the Royal Court’s work, opening up opportunities for writers and other creatives from overseas and thus enriching our theatre ecology, but it also lets the audience into stories rarely seen on the British stage. Goats is set in a Syrian village surrounded by war and death in 2016. The boys who have died fighting are celebrated as martyrs, national heroes, who have done their families proud. The leader of the Local Party, Abu Al-Tayyib, puts much work into such nationalist propaganda, ensuring that the lasting image around their deaths is one of honour in order to encourage other boys to enter the war and die for their country. However, one Villager, Abu Firas (meaning father of Firas), takes it upon himself to question his son’s disappearance and death. Why did his son, who had always seemed so anti-war, disappear? Why did he phone his father asking what he should do? And why are the parents not allowed to see inside the coffins? But when the propaganda machine is so efficiently run and far reaching, Abu Firas looks like a lone crazy conspiracy theorist shouting in front of the cameras and ruining the boys’ funerals. But he’s done enough to sow the seed of doubt into the villagers’ minds about what is really happening to their sons. What Yazji achieves so well is to explore the boundary between public thoughts and televised lies, and private truths and silent doubts. And in a play – and indeed a culture – where the older characters are defined by their relationship to the children (Abu for ‘father of’, and Imm meaning ‘mother of’), the importance of family and the awareness of passing the responsibility of one’s country to your children is heightened.

As the truth unfolds, the realities of war and how a community reacts to and experiences them on a daily basis is fascinating. How can the villagers go on sending their children to their deaths, or have their lies gone so far that the truth has become a blurred and unreachable concept for them? It is a fascinating play which, like the best drama, opens our eyes to new worlds and perspectives. I also have to praise Halls for controlling what is a long and at times unwieldy play (apparently the original is longer). In fact, it relies heavily on text. This doesn’t seem to restrict its theatricality or its ambition, but it does make me curious about the creative process and how it was developed. Finally, in a text and original production which includes real goats, I think we have a new contender for best stage direction: ‘The goat butts its head against the wall, and the house shakes’.

Published by Nick Hern Books

Close of Play (1979), by Simon Gray

…so you see, what is the point, the point of caring for each other and love each other when the end is always and always the same…

I’ve been reading Daniel Rosenthal’s excellent selection of letters from the National Theatre archives: Dramatic Exchanges. I’m currently on the boys’ club of the Peter Hall years (1973-1988) and it seems that his approach to new writing, at least in the early years of his tenure, was ‘let’s get anyone and anything in that fills the space’. One of the juiciest bits of correspondence is from Gray about Harold Pinter’s production of Close of Play in the Lyttelton. Gray’s play – which sees a Sunday family get-together lay bare their long-held rivalries, tensions and secrets – played in rep with the premiere of Pinter’s Betrayal, both of which featured Michael Gambon. In his letter, Gray blames the NT for the play’s ‘lousy start, with no possibility of advanced bookings, and precious little publicity’. The production was beleaguered by strikes with the opening pushed back several times. However, I believe it was the same for Betrayal but they didn’t hamper that play’s success or legacy.

I read this letter before reading (or even hearing of?) the play. I’m glad it didn’t put me off because I quite enjoyed it. It’s true that it’s standard commercial, middle class and middle of the road fare. But Gray has acutely drawn an interesting family, each with their neuroses and complexes, secrets and problems, desires and shame. On the surface, things might look normal, all muffins and French windows, but the façade is quickly unveiled. Henry (Gambon) is an overworked and successful GP having an affair with one of his patients. Both he and his alcoholic brother are shadowed by their more successful dead brother. Their step mum Daisy (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) can go half a page of speech without ever really saying anything other than tautological fussing over the children. She’s married to their dad Jasper (Sir Michael Redgrave), who mutely has to listen to and therefore become complicit in everyone else’s secrets. He has a couple of outbursts later on but not much acting chops required… The sons’ wives have their own issues, including Margaret who has become a successful author and now realises she wants out of her marriage. I wouldn’t look into the play as a study of real human relationships and mental heath conditions, but as material for drama, it makes for a highly flammable crucible. Gray makes intriguing drama from letting us watch his characters unravel, leading to a weird and theatrical denouement. And like in Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, there is an inner life to the play in a fascinating series of offstage characters.

There was something I also enjoyed about the experience of reading this book. It’s a thin book (the play text is not much more than 50 pages) and its design is merely made up of the title and writer. I got it out of a library, but the inside stamp is from a campus on an institution which no longer exists. And it was first taken out of said library before the play had its premiere, and seemingly not stamped in the 40 years since.

Published by Methuen

2nd May 1997 (2009), by Jack Thorne

It’s brilliant. It’s like everything’s new. I’m so excited.

Ahead of a new New Labour play from Thorne opening at the Royal Court this week, I thought it would be good to read this earlier play of his. A triptych, each section is set in a different bedroom the morning of and night before Labour’s landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. In the first, a veteran Tory MP is expected to lose his seat. In the second, Sarah has followed the wrong guy home from a party. In the third, two 18-year-old Politics students wake up in the same bed together after a night of watching the votes come in.

Most of the enjoyment came from imagining original cast members Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Hugh Skinner play the awkward negotiation of exchanges in the one-night stand scene. But what’s great about Thorne’s writing is his careful exploration of character and always interesting use of stage directions. We (and possibly him) are surprised by what characters might do next. Each scene contains different levels of hope, possibility and disappointment, no more so than in the last scene. The snapshot we see of Will and Jake shows a brief but complete portrayal of coming-of-age. They contemplate their future, both at university and career, their friendship, and their sexuality. It palpably captures a moment of excitement, as naïve or short-lived as that might be, shared around the country by many that morning. Each scene may be microcosmic, but it’s the level of finely-observed detail in each which is really exciting to discover.

Published by Nick Hern Books