Hail Caesar!


David Morrissey as Mark Antony. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre, London.

Entering The Bridge’s auditorium for this Julius Caesar is not the usual theatre-going experience. The stage and stalls gone, to be replaced with an open pit, in which a band is playing high energy rock,  flags are being waved and red baseball caps (ring any contemporary bells?) are being sold to the assembled crowd. It’s quite a way to begin, but then this is quite a production.

The show’s unique selling point is the chance to be in the pit, not just surrounded by, but in the midst of the action. We, however, were sitting down. The reasons for this were twofold – we weren’t sure if my husband’s legs would hold out, and I’m a grand total of 5ft tall. No matter how sharp my elbows, there was always a good chance I would spent two hours staring at someone’s back. I constantly bless whichever Ancient Greek invented raked theatre seating.

For all non-standers, I am happy to report that the production is still thrilling, certainly from where we were sitting, on the extreme left of Gallery 1. (I can’t comment on the view from the higher galleries). Much of the action takes place on staging blocks which rise up from the floor, putting the actors on roughly our eyeline (but potentially giving the standees sore necks…). This position also gives you the chance to observe the crowd itself, which becomes essentially an extra character in the play. It also makes a political point about the behaviour of crowds – far from being detached observers, the crowd are swept up, joining in with chants and happily helping to lift Caesar’s giant flag, or hold pictures of him during the funeral scene.

Sitting or standing, this is a very powerful production, cleverly drawing parallels with the modern world. David Calder’s red tie-wearing Caesar (again, ring any bells?) is a man who has started to believe his own publicity, while Ben Wishaw’s intellectual Brutus is no match for David Morrissey’s Mark Antony. This latter was probably my favourite performance in the whole production, especially his delivery of the oration at Caesar’s funeral, where he very cleverly almost throws away the famous ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ line. I also liked Hannah Stokely as Cassius (standing in as understudy for Michelle Fairley), Abraham Popoola in various parts (including the warm-up band’s lead singer) and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus, slyly and flirtatiously persuading Caesar to go to the marketplace and his doom.

Any criticisms I might make of the production are very minor: after such a high energy start, the first scenes felt slow, although the atmosphere quickly built up again, and do the very clear Trump parallels make it too hard to feel sympathy for Caesar himself?

I want to end by paying tribute to the stage crew, who – in costume – have to deal with not only a complex and moving set, but also do so whilst in the middle of several hundred audience members. This must be the stage crew equivalent of the Winter Olympics. Hail to them, and hail Caesar!

Julius Caesar runs at The Bridge in London until 15th April. It will be screened to cinemas on 22 March.  https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/julius-caesar/  







Dancing through the darkness


Ashley Shaw as Cinderella. Photo by Johan Persson. 

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Sadlers Well and then touring.


The air raid sirens begin as the house light go down. It’s a sound that even now, two or three generations away from the war, still chills the blood. Sir Matthew Bourne’s take on the famous story is clearly not going to be your average saccharine fairytale.

The setting works beautifully, with Lez Brotherston’s stunning design transporting us to a world drained of colour by the war, in which young people snatch at whatever chance of fun they can. There’s something about the desperate glamour of young people partying during the Blitz that really catches the heart, and it gives the story a real emotional depth that you don’t associate with fairytales. It’s not however without touches of humour, especially from Cinderella’s stepsisters (Kate Lyons and Sophia Hurdley).

Bourne certainly commits fully to the timeshift: Instead of a fairy godmother, we have Liam Mower’s Angel, in a white pearlescent suit, rescuing Cinders from an air raid as well as her stepmother, before whisking her off to a night of dancing and passion, not with a prince, but a dashing RAF pilot. The Angel seems to owe a definite debt to 1940’s films, such as A Matter of Life and Death, or The Bishops Wife, both of which feature heavenly visitors.

Cinderella company

In the central roles, Ashley Shaw is a luminous Cinderella, and Dominic North is suitably dashing as the Pilot, with both characters developed beyond their usual fairytale outlines. There’s also a suitably wicked – but very glamourous – stepmother in the form of Michela Meazza.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the story still has a happy ending. There’s a nice touch as the end, after we see Cinders and her new husband waved off on a train, when the Angel wanders over to stand next to another girl, who is dining alone and presumably also in need of his ministrations. Evidently an Angel’s work is never done.

Cinderella runs at Sadlers Well until 27th January, before touring the UK – details here: http://new-adventures.net/cinderella/tour-dates







Bang to rights


Emmet Byrne and Geoffrey Streatfeild in Cell Mates


Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre

Cell Mates is a theatrical curio, a footnote to the development of a National Treasure. This was the play from which Stephen Fry fled, sparking an international search, after apparently reacting badly to negative reviews. While Fry was found in Belgium, he never returned to the play, and the production never recovered, closing not long after.

Whether because of superstition arising from this incident or not, the play hasn’t really seen the light of day from then until now, and this revival at Hampstead. But is it a play worth seeing for itself? I’d say yes – it’s a sharp and often very funny story about friendship and deception.

The friendship at the play’s heart is between George Blake, an MI6 officer turned KGB spy, and Sean Bourke, the Irish petty criminal who in 1966 helped Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs, where he was five years into a 40-year sentence for espionage.  The play concentrates on their time together in Moscow, where Blake has now settled, and Bourke is making what he thinks will be a short visit. My only criticism of the play is that the development of their friendship in the Scrubs seems remarkably quick, although the two lead actors do a good job with what they’re given, cleverly showing how these two intelligent outsiders found common cause.

This is play which stands or falls on the performances of its two lead actors, and Hampstead have found an outstanding pair. Geoffrey Streatfeild  (as Blake) was already a favourite of mine, but I also loved Emmet Byrne as Bourke – an aspiring writer essentially looking for good copy (in the age of social media perhaps that’s something a lot of us will recognise) – who ends up in something way over his head. (He’s a completely new talent to me, but as most of his work appears to have been in Ireland I think I can be forgiven my ignorance). Streatfeild’s Blake is a beautifully slippery characterisation, gradually peeling off layers of deception (“Spies betray people, that’s what we do. It becomes a – a habit. Difficult to break”). His Blake seems to be a man in search of an identity, with even his Englishness essentially an act (Blake was born George Behar, in Rotterdam, to a Dutch mother and an Egyptian-Jewish father). Perhaps this is why he tries so hard to hang on to the familiar presence of Bourke (it isn’t the reason Blake himself gives, but he’s definitely not a reliable witness, even about himself).

The three supporting members of the cast are also good, especially in their second half characters: Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird as a pair of darkly comic KGB officers, and Cara Hogan as Blake’s housekeeper Zinaida, holding her own nicely amongst the boys.

Cell Mates runs at Hampstead Theatre until 20th January.





Out of the shadows


Tara Fitzgerald as Elizabeth and Aidan McArdle as Walsingham. (c) Marc Brenner


The Secret Theatre, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (The Globe)

Sometimes you get a perfect synergy of play and venue. This is exactly the case with Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The story of Elizabeth I’s spymaster and the shadowy realms in which he operates sits perfectly in this candle-lit jewel box of a theatre.

The setting is perfect, and the story is pretty damn good too: England lives in fear of religious-inspired terror. In an attempt to safeguard the realm and protect the Queen, Francis Walsingham plots and deploys his network of spies – but does the end justify his means? Can surveillance create real safety?

There are of course plenty of modern parallels here, which Lustgarten exploits nicely, particularly with a few jokes about bankers not paying tax and Englishmen never winning at tennis. But he also deftly captures the back-biting and shadowy Elizabethan court.

The play is not entirely flawless– I thought the end, in which we discovered the master manipulator has been manipulated himself, felt a touch heavy-handed, trying a bit too hard to hammer home the view that surveillance doesn’t create safety. I didn’t find either of the play’s only two female characters (Queen Elizabeth herself and Walsingham’s daughter Frances*) entirely convincingly drawn, though the former wasn’t helped by Tara Fitzgerald’s performance, which felt too one-note, especially in the first half.

(*Mary Queen of Scots does make an appearance, but as all she does is say a prayer in Latin before heading off to her execution, I don’t think she qualifies as a proper character.)

My reservations about Fitzgerald aside, the cast are good, led by Aidan McArdle as Walsingham, cleverly showing the paranoia of a man who has heard too many secrets, and may even be suffering from PTSD, having been traumatised by witnessing the St Bartholmew’s Day Massacre. He’s well-supported by Ian Redford as Cecil, Sam Marks as both the Sir Philip Sydney and a tortured Jesuit (both in their own ways heroic but doomed) and Abraham Popoola as Walsingham’s torturer.

The Secret Theatre runs until 16th December: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/sam-wanamaker-playhouse/the-secret-theatre-2017

A towering success


Rory Kinnear as Karl Marx. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


Young Marx at The Bridge Theatre, London

Here we have not just a new play to consider, but a whole new theatre. The Bridge Theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, formerly of the National Theatre just along the Thames. It describes itself as ‘a commercial venture, but one with a mission’, which certainly sounds highly promising. In their programme note, they also say they’ve ‘tried to imagine what a 21st-century theatre could and should be like’. Does it work? Well, I am pleased to report that yes, it does.

The airy foyer makes good use of its views over to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, but would be pleasant even without the showy neighbours. I especially liked the hundreds of bulbs with chiffon drapery which hang from the ceiling (despite the husband’s comment that they looked like ladies’ knickers…). There are lots of ladies’ toilets (hallelujah!) and plentiful water fountains, all supplied with plastic cups, to combat the Curse of the Coughing Customer. The sightlines in the auditorium are good.

Of course, nowhere is perfect. I can’t remember if I was feeling particularly poor or being unusually sensible when I booked these seats, but I eschewed my normal theatre ticket extravagance for some (relatively) cheap seats at the side of the first gallery. These feel narrower than others (we were early, we tried a few others out), and require quite a lot of wriggling past other patrons to get into, and out of again at the interval (Incidentally, who are these people who stay in their seats throughout the interval? Even if you have better bladder capacity than me (not hard, granted) surely you want to stretch your legs? Have a drink? Not have people like me fall over your feet twice within 20 minutes?). The other problem is that these seats felt like they hadn’t been screwed down as well as they could have been – there were some issues with squeaking and wobbling. But, I must admit the view of the stage was remarkably good.

One other thing to add – one of the Bridge’s pre-opening selling points was the availability of freshly-baked madeleines in the interval. Purely in the interests of journalistic research, we tried some. I am happy to report that they are delicious.

Of course, however lovely the theatre, it is what happens on stage that should really matter. Fortunately, this works too. The play – by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman – involves the exploits of Karl Marx as a young man, living a Bohemian lifestyle in London, long before he became the sombre bearded philosopher of popular imagination.

Marx is played – as brilliantly as you would expect – by Rory Kinnear, who not only has great comic timing, but captures all of the layers of Marx’s personality – not just his intelligence and fecklessness, but also the charisma that built him a following. He has a great foil in Oliver Chris’ Engels, with whom he forms something not unlike a music hall double act, with their repeated refrains of “Marx and Engels,” “Engels and Marx”. This could turn into an irritating ‘bromance’ but doesn’t, thanks to Engels’ willingness to call Marx out. Chris has a great speech about the horrors of the conditions he has witnessed amongst the poor of England, and why the world needs Marx’s work.

There are also excellent performances from the play’s two female characters – Nancy Carroll as his long-suffering wife Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone as no-nonsense (except when it comes to Marx himself) housekeeper Nym. I’d have liked to have seen them and their relationship given more stage time.

This is a very funny play, which is at its best when it’s at its most knowing – whether about the unlikeliness of a revolution which would bring Marxist government to Russia, or having fun with the then newly-formed police force. This latter features a line from a policeman promising a lack of violence because “I’ve been on a course” – cue huge laugh. Mark Thompson’s clever, evocative set, complete with smoking chimneys, transforms itself into a variety of locations, from the Marx family’s small Soho flat to the reading room of the British Museum. My only criticism might be that the whole thing feel curiously filmic, and perhaps didn’t have the effect it might have done as a result.

But that’s a minor quibble – between them Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre provided an excellent afternoon, madeleines and all.

Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December, and will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 7th December: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/





The mother lode


Sope Dirisu (Coriolanus) and James Corrigan (Aufidius). Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC


Coriolanus, RSC Live From Stratford Upon Avon

Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I am aware that this probably puts me in the kind of minority that can usually be found looking for very specialist websites, but there it is. Partly this is because one of the great formative theatre experiences of my teenage years was seeing Toby Stephens play the title role (also for the RSC), but, barnstorming performances aside I think the play contains some of Shakespeare’s most exquisite language.

As it’s infrequently performed, I had high hopes for this RSC production – which in the event, does contain one magnificent central performance: from Haydn Gwynne as Volumnia, Coriolanus mother (we’ll come to Coriolanus himself in a minute). Gwynne is wonderful – she has complete mastery of the language, and takes her character from unsympathetic pushy mother to heart-rending despair, as she realises she has saved her city but probably killed her son. Volumnia is one of the few great Shakespearean roles for older women – surely another reason to dust off Coriolanus a little more often?

Like Hamlet without the prince, you can’t have Coriolanus without the man himself, and here lies the problem.  Sope Dirisu certainly looks the part of the great soldier, but his performance for me falls flat. The text sometimes seems to be speaking him rather than the other way around, and he lacked the necessary charisma to make him believable as a leader of men. The lack of charisma sucks much of the life out of the play, as it makes it hard to care what happens to Coriolanus. It’s not that this is a bad performance – it has some lovely moments, such as when he finally breaks down in the face of Volumnia’s pleading – but for the production to work it needed to reach a higher level. I found that I was much more interested in James Corrigan’s Tullus Aufidius, which is a subtle and clever performance.

Perhaps part of the problem with Dirisu’s performance comes from the production itself, which can’t quite seem to make up its mind about things. Despite the modern dress, it doesn’t seem to want to commit to drawing parallels with contemporary events, but equally doesn’t quite commit to making it a personal or a family tragedy – or indeed anything else – either. Was Jackie Morrison’s tribune of the people meant to have shades of Nicola Sturgeon, or am I just looking for meaning where none exists?

I may possibly be making this sound like a disaster, which it wasn’t at all. I did enjoy it, and in Haydn Gwynne’s Volumnia it has one truly great and memorable performance.  It just felt like a missed opportunity.

Coriolanus runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14th October. It can then be seen at the Barbican, London 6th-18th November.



Not your average adaptation


Jane Eyre Nadia-Clifford-Jane-Eyre-Tim-Delap-Rochester-Melanie-Marshall-Bertha-Mason-NT-Jane-Eyre-Tour-2017.-Photo-by-BrinkhoffMgenburg-900x600
Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) Tim Delap (Rochester) and Melanie Marshall (Bertha Mason). Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Jane Eyre, Marlowe Theatre Canterbury and touring

If you are looking for a pretty frocks type of adaptation, then Sally Cookson’s version of Charlotte Bronte’s tale is probably not for you. It is not conventional. Cookson’s approach was to strip the novel back to its bare bones, to liberate it from under flounces of petticoats.

This is done using a highly physical approach, on a set made of platforms and staircases of wood, and iron ladders, like a child’s climbing frame in the days before health and safety. Although the characters still wear period costume, even these are stripped down versions. The whole thing has the kind of ingenuity I generally associate with smaller-scale and lower budget shows. For example, all of the cast play multiple roles (even the small band of musicians), indicating changes in character with simple additions like shawls or hats. This extends to the physical performances as well. With only one set, the characters run on the spot to give a sense of travelling to another location. It may sound odd, but it’s weirdly effective.

Jane Eyre 2

So, overall does this approach work? For me, wholeheartedly yes. It gives fresh life and heart to the characters, and to the story itself, although it did take me a little while to settle into it. The first twenty minutes felt a little little disjointed, and if you’re usually a viewer of more conventional theatre, the style takes a bit of getting used to. However, by the time Jane bids farewell to her dying childhood friend Helen Burns I was definitely snivelling: the show had me, and it continued to sweep me along from there on in. Another unusual aspect of this production is its use of music – as well as the on-stage band, a variety of numbers are performed by Melanie Marshall’s hovering Bertha Mason. This music includes renditions of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ and Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About The Boy’, as well as more traditional numbers. I really loved the incongruity of the modern songs – again, it gives characters we all thought we knew a fresh jolt of life. The almost constant presence of Bertha reminded me – in a good way – of one of my undergraduate essays, which suggested that Bertha almost represents the wild side of Jane’s personality, with both frequently associated with fire imagery.

Of course, with this kind of stripped-down approach, you need a good cast: fortunately, we’ve got one. Nadia Clifford is excellent in the title role, developing convincingly from the angry child to the passionate woman. Tim Delap brings just the right kind of brooding charisma (and a very impressive beard) to the role of Mr Rochester. The rest of the cast play multiple roles, with special mentions to Hannah Bristow as Helen, Adele and others, and Paul Mundell, one of whose roles’ is as Pilot, Mr Rochester’s dog.

So, it may not be your average adaptation, but if you love the novel, and want to see a version of Jane Eyre which captures the fire at the heart of the original, go and see this with an open mind, and let it work its magic.

Jane Eyre is touring, and will then run at The National Theatre. https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/jane-eyre-on-tour https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/jane-eyre