A dance delight

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The Red Shoes, Marlowe Theatre

I think I have discovered a new disease. It’s highly contagious, and can spread like wild fire. I’m calling it Matthew Bourne Fever, and my office came down with an almost universal case of it last week. As regular readers will know, I work in a theatre – and myself and my colleagues have fairly diverse tastes, but Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company will get almost all of us excited.

I myself first caught this particular ailment when I saw The Car Man (see here), but now Sir Matthew is back, with a new work, an all-dance adaptation of the Powell & Pressburger film, The Red Shoes.  It’s described by the man himself as a ‘love letter’ to dance and theatre, the whole production is wonderfully and appropriately theatrical. The set in particular, is a thing of wonder. It’s most notable feature is a huge false proscenium arch, covered in gold leaf, with red velvet curtains. This turns and pivots, taking us from the front of stage to backstage to great effect.

Although I’ve started with the sheer wonder that is the set, of course, the production would be nothing without its human heart, its dancers. As ever, with Matthew Bourne, both the dancing and the acting within it are beautiful, especially from the central trio. Sam Archer is the charismatic puppet-master Lermontov, for whom dance is supreme, and human emotions are a distraction from art. In the performance I saw, the role of Vicky Page was played by the luminous Cordelia Braithwaite, with a wide-eyed delight at the start, shading into melancholy and later desperation in the second act. The third side of this triangle is Chris Trenfield, as Julian, the nerdy but adorable composer, who suddenly explodes into charisma as he conducts his own work.

The other thing about this production is that it’s often very funny – you don’t necessarily expect to laugh out loud at a dance production, but you do with this one – whether at the dancers of the Lermontov company walking through rehearsals with fags in their mouths, or the very funny sand dance in the music hall section in the second act.

I did wonder in advance whether the theme of a woman forced to choose between life and art would still feel relevant, but in the end that doesn’t really matter. This is still a thrilling human story, beautifully danced. My heart was in my mouth as Vicky’s story reached its tragic end.  If you can, go and lose yourself in this beautiful production.

The Red Shoes is touring to various venues: http://new-adventures.net/the-red-shoes

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Sweet as an orange

 

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Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell

 

I have to admit to a soft spot for both Nell Gwynn and Charles II. The former always stands out amid the court beauties of history – generally either bitchy or insipid – for her wit and warmth, while the latter seems to have been one of the few genuinely intelligent British monarchs – and one of even fewer with an identifiable sense of humour. So the real wonder is why it took me so long to manage to see Jessica Swale’s glorious play.

Although I’ve been missing out all this time (the play was first performed in 2015), I’m glad that I ended up catching it in its original home, the Globe. Although the original Globe was a hundred or so years earlier than the period the play covers, there’s something about the intimacy of the ‘wooden O’, and the closeness of the audience to the stage that feel right for the Restoration period.  Christopher Luscombe’s production makes good use of the way that characters can walk right through the groundlings to reach the stage, right from the first scene, which features a confrontation  between our heroine Nell and a heckler hidden among the real-life audience, with an unfortunate actor caught in the middle.

Laura Pitt-Pulford gives a winning performance as Nell, whose rise from orange-seller to King’s mistress, via a stint as an actress, is charted by the play. As well as having the necessary charm, she also sings beautifully. The catchy songs, particularly one about a giant hat, are one of the productions great strengths – you’ll have them stuck in your head for days afterwards. It’s nice to have a pay with a female lead, and there are some other good roles for women, with Mossie Smith very funny as Nell’s dresser Nancy, and Pandora Clifford giving not one but two beautifully bitchy performances as two rival royal mistresses.

It may be pleasingly female-dominated, but the men do pretty well out of it too. Ben Righton as Charles II strikes a nice balance between majesty and humour. He gets some of the best lines, including a perfectly-timed response to the exclamation of ‘Oh God!’: “Well, King. Next rung down.” Sam Marks gives a poignant performance as Charles Hart, the actor lover who Nell abandons for the king. Esh Alladi also puts in a funny turn as drama queen Edward Kynaston – an actor playing female roles, convinced that this fad for actresses won’t last long. There is even an appearance from a rea,l live – and very cute – King Charles spaniel (gender unknown), to the great delight of the audience.

The storyline is bit slight – girl becomes actress, girl meets king, they fall in love – and as a result, there’s perhaps not a huge amount of dramatic tension, but that doesn’t really matter. This play is one that can truly be described as a ‘romp’ and taken on that level it is utterly wonderful – warm, witty, fun and beautiful to look at. Not unlike Nell Gwyn herself, in fact.

 

 

 

Storm in a stocking

 

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Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. Photo by Marc Brenner

Twelfth Night, National Theatre via NT Live

 

It’s perhaps appropriate that this staging of Twelfth Night begins by showing us the storm (featuring an extract of the shipping forecast in addition to the usual storm sound effects, a nice touch) which separates Sebastian and Viola, as its casting has created something of a storm in a tea cup. This production is what’s described as ‘gender fluid’ – several formerly male characters, most notably Malvolio, who is transmogrified into Malvolia (Tamsin Grieg). So far, so quite interesting but hardly shocking. Except it seems to have been the final straw for The Telegraph’s theatre critic, who wrote a piece worrying that the male lead was being killed off, and telling women to get their sticky mitts off male parts. I paraphrase, but only slightly.

I say: what a load of rubbish. The male lead is alive and well, as a quick glance at the RSC’s recent leaflet promoting their Roman season will tell you – the only woman on there is playing Cleopatra. I don’t particularly have a problem with that (well, maybe a small one), but equally, I can’t see why anyone (even if they do work for The Telegraph) could have a problem with a little gender-bending, especially in Twelfth Night, which is all about gender disguise and confusion. The only real question to be considered, is whether the production is any good – and this one is brilliant.

Tamsin Greig is a fine actress with a great gift for comedy, and her comic scenes are hugely funny – but she always captures the character’s melancholy and pain too. The closing image of her, alone after the rest of the principal cast have paired off to be happy is haunting. Why did Shakespeare create such a sad end for a character in what is meant to be a comedy?  His/her presence at the end of the play feels almost like that of Banquo at Macbeth’s feast. Perhaps his point is to do with the heedlessness and selfishness of love. Perhaps the glover’s son is making a class point, since the other character left alone at the end of the play is Antonio, the seaman who saves – and loves – Sebastian. Either way, if we’d stuck to conventional casting we’d never have missed out on this performance.

 

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Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrance as Viola. Photo by Marc Brenner.

 

The rest of the cast is just as good. Oliver Chris’ Orsino is a simple soul –perhaps not quite Tim Nice But Dim, but edging in that direction – whose howl of relief at realising the person he has fallen in love with is not a boy but a girl in disguise is one of the play’s funniest moments. Phoebe Fox is a strong-minded Olivia, giving herself up to melancholy, but discovering passion can still burst through, while Tamara Lawrance is a lively Viola, with a particularly nice line in astonished expressions – she’s one to watch. Tim McMullen and Daniel Rigby (I wonder if that’s really all his own hair…) are a fine comic pair as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and Imogen Doel makes a good impression in the small role of Fabia (another gender-switched role).

The cast are great, but the set deserves a mention too – it’s a huge pyramidal structure, which revolves to reveal different spaces, meaning we rarely see the same thing twice. The gay bar with a drag queen performing Hamlet’s soliloquy as a torch song was a particularly nice touch.

This production is directed by Simon Godwin, who was also at the helm for the RSC’s recent production of Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu (which I also loved, despite my ambivalence towards Hamlet)  – he seems to have a deft touch with Shakespeare, an ability to bring out the themes of the plays in a way that makes them seem fresh.  I suspect I don’t always give directors the credit they deserve, so I’ll end by saying: keep up the good work Simon. And ignore any rantings from Telegraph journalists.

Twelfth Night, National Theatre until 13th May

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/twelfth-night/whats-on

 

 

The evolution of the fox

 

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Ben Aldridge as Charlie

 

Run The Beast Down, Marlowe Studio Canterbury & Finborough Theatre London

This is a slightly unusual post for me. Although I work in a theatre, I rarely write about any of the shows I deal with – but I’ve recently had the rare and unusual opportunity to see a new play develop, from page to first performance and then onwards, and I wanted to share it. For my Twitter followers, this is the play I’ve been going on about recently! Hopefully, this post will help explain why.

The script for Run The Beast Down – by first time playwright Titas Halder – was submitted to a new writing programme called Roar (don’t ask why it’s called that, it’s too complicated to explain), run by The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, where I work. So I first encountered it as a script, passed around the office and discussed.

It is, according to the script, ‘a play for one actor’. This one actor plays Charlie, a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, Charlie loses his job in the City (as the result of a Lehman Brothers-style collapse) on the same day that his long-suffering girlfriend walks out on him. So far, so prosaic. But the script then heads off in some very unexpected directions, as Charlie stops sleeping, and finds himself being haunted by an urban fox… We hear all of this from Charlie himself, and he’s a highly unreliable narrator. How much of this is real, and how much is in his head?

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Although everyone in my office agreed that we liked the script, we found it hard to imagine how it would work as a play. How the hell do you bring to the stage a script which involves a possibly imaginary conversation with a fox in cafe?

Well, after months of waiting, last week, we finally got the answer, with the opening of Run The Beast Down. The key to director Hannah Price’s vision is the music – the play comes with an electronic soundtrack, played by an onstage DJ (Chris Bartholomew). Tales about talking foxes might seem to more the realm of rural fairytales, but this is a very urban story, with a suitably urban soundtrack.

The urban theme is carried over into the back drop, with a set consisting of eight metal poles illuminated by ever changing neon lights. It’s scenery that gives no clue as what is really happening or how much of this is in Charlie’s insomniac imagination. The combination of the lighting and the music gives the whole production the feeling of a particularly vivid dream, the kind you get unexpected flashbacks to the next day.

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But of course, however good the production, a one-man show stands or falls on the performance of one man. The man in this case is Ben Aldridge – he’s best known for his work on TV (in Our Girl, Fleabag and various other things), but, boy, can he cut it on stage too. He’s never off stage, there’s no scenery to hide behind, but he holds the audience’s attention for a solid ninety minutes. He captures the various characters – from his braying workmate to an overworked GP, to the talking fox itself – that Charlie encounters beautifully, striking the difficult balance between differentiating them, without stepping out of his main character. There’s a lovely detail in the way he uses his hands to mimic the ear movements of the fox during that conversation in the cafe.

It was fascinating to see Aldridge’s performance – and the production – develop between the first performance and the second one I saw, at the end of their week-long run in Canterbury. It’s not just that the production gets slicker, or that new elements have been added – although both of those things are true – but it’s got more confident in subtler ways too. For example, allowing more space for the audience to laugh.

This has given me a harder view of the recent controversy about reviewing previews. I might have been neutral before, but now I’m clear: It isn’t fair. I loved both the production and Aldridge’s performance on the first night, but it wasn’t a finished article (although whether live theatre can ever be that is debatable), it wasn’t something on which judgement should be passed.

However, putting that rant to one side – I’ll definitely be looking out for Hannah Price’s work in future, and I hope it’s not too long before Aldridge can be tempted away from TV and back to the stage. If you can squeeze into the Finborough Theatre in London in the next month, do go and check out Run The Beast Down – it’s a unique experience.

http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2017/run-the-beast-down.php

 

 

 

 

 

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A spectacular storm

 

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Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

 

The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

I first saw Simon Russell Beale on stage when I was still at school, in another RSC production of The Tempest, in which he was a physically unlikely but utterly compelling Ariel. Since then, enough years have passed for me to consider lying about my age, meaning that Russell Beale has now graduated to playing Prospero. Now that was a prospect that had me scurrying to the RSC website to book tickets.

And he doesn’t disappoint.  This is a masterful performance by a master performer. He’s good at suggesting the various layers of Prospero, from his tenderness to his daughter, to a finely delineated mix of anger at his usurpation and guilt that his neglect allowed it to happen. The moment when he forgives his usurping brother is especially beautiful. 

But if it was the return of the mesmerically brilliant Russell Beale to the RSC that had me packing my bags for a trip to Stratford, most of the pre-publicity about this production has been about the technology involved in it. In partnership with Intel and Imaginarium Studios, this show features the first live theatrical use of motion capture technology, to create avatars of Mark Quartley’s lithe and watchful Ariel,  which are controlled by the actor’s own movement, frequently giving us two Ariels for the price of one (although this technology cannot come cheap).  So, does it work? Does it overshadow the actors? Yes, and no, respectively, but I’m not sure it adds very much.  The Ariel avatars are fun, although I suspect they are better viewed from front and centre stalls than our perch in the cheap seats (one end of the Upper Circle).  From here, the sequence in which  Ariel appears  as a Harpy might as well have been a pre-recorded projection, as Quartley was hidden from view (he was perched at the side of the stage one level down from us, so that even leaning  perilously forward all I could just see was a glimpse of one of his one shoulders). Quartley’s best moments were his one-on-one moments with Russell Beale, especially his delivery of the line “Mine would sir, were I human,” which sums up Ariel’s strange, otherworldly emotions.

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Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Seating gripes aside, there’s no denying that this is a gorgeous production. Framed between the giant rotting timbers of a wrecked ship, projections evoke Prospero’s spirit-filled isle. More projections are used in the masque sequence, with its three operatic singing goddesses. It’s a huge contrast to the last production of The Tempest that I saw, which was set in a prison and used rubbish as props (see here). Do I have a favourite? No. I’m just glad British theatre has room for both.  

As well as the technology, there are some great performances. I especially liked Jenny Rainsford’s engaging Miranda, Tom Turner’s caddish Sebastian (brilliant moustache!) and the comedy duo of Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder. The moment when the latter hopped down into the audience and onto an audience members’ lap was a very funny. Wonder if the audience member ever reacts badly?

But in the end, it’s Russell Beale’s show. The most moving and powerful moment comes not from the flash-bang whizzy technology, but simply from him standing alone on stage with a simple spotlight.  I’d follow him through the storm anytime.

The Tempest is at the Royal Shakespeare Company until 21 January, before transferring to The Barbican in London.

https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-tempest/

 

Summer Lovin’

 

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Geoffrey Streatfeild as Platonov and Justine Mitchell as Anna Petrovna

 

Wild Honey by Anton Chekhov & Michael Frayn, Hampstead Theatre

It’s Chekhov, Jim, but not as we know it – and not just because of the presence of Michael Frayn as co-writer.  We are dealing here with early Chekhov, adapted by Frayn from a sprawling and nameless manuscript discovered in a Moscow vault sixteen years after Chekhov’s death.  This is Chekhov via Feydeau, Chekhov as writer of farce, albeit a farce with a tragically human heart.

Wild Honey is the story of Platonov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), and the various women who pursue him during one hot summer. Platonov  is almost a personification of failed promise. Once a future Byron in Moscow, he’s ended up as a school teacher in a country back-water, married to a wife he doesn’t respect.  We’ve all met a Platonov – essentially useless, self-serving and pathetic, but possessing enough charisma that you allow yourself to be charmed anyway. They’re dangerous but enjoyable to be around. But although he hides it, Platonov is horribly aware of his failure. He’s thrown off his axis by the question posed by Sofya, a former girlfriend from his Moscow days: “Why haven’t you done better?”  It’s from this one question that events begin to spiral out of control.

There are many recognisable Chekhovisms in Wild Honey – whether the themes of unfulfilled promise (“Why do we never lead the life we have it in us to lead?” is the play’s key question), the dream of escaping from the provinces, or the debt-ridden aristocrats – but all refracted through the unexpected lens of farce. Even as the story gets darker, this is a very funny play, which reminds us of the sheer absurdity of human loves and lusts. It’s a highly effective antidote to the grey and damp British winter, with the gorgeous birch tree-filled set and lighting evoking a longed-for hot summer and its consequent lusts.

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I have written elsewhere on this blog (see here and here) about my devotion to the acting talent that is Geoffrey Streatfeild, and he continues to more than justify my (cultural) stalking of him. After last seeing him as the tortured Ivanov at the National, it’s nice to see him display his comedy timing again. He gets a run for his money from Platonov’s quartet of women: Justine Mitchell as the impoverished aristocrat Anna Petrovna, a widow beset with such useless suitors you really can’t blame her for taking the initiative and going after Platonov; Sophie Rundle as Sofya, Jo Herbert as the bluestocking victim of Platonov’s teasing; Rebecca Humphries as his devoted and neglected wife. It’s notable that Platonov does not deserve the devotion of any of these women.  In fact, none of the men in the play come out of this very well – they are all weak or otherwise unpleasant.

Wild Honey is at the Hampstead Theatre until  21st January. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2016/wild-honey/

The Imprisoned Storm

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The Tempest, Donmar Warehouse at King’s Cross

A prison buzzer sounds. “Please stand aside. Inmates coming through.”

Being bossed around by uniformed prison guards is not what you expect from an afternoon at the theatre, but it’s how Phyllida Lloyd’s production of The Tempest  begins. This is the third of a trilogy of productions, all starring Harriet Walter at the head of an all-female cast, and all set in a women’s prison.

Here, she’s playing Prospero. My love for Harriet Walter is boundless, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Her Prospero captures both the mystical manipulator and the protective parent aspects of the character perfectly. You need a certain presence to bring Prospero to life, and she has it.

She’s got a good cast behind her, of which my favourite was Jade Anouka’s rapping, body-popping Ariel. I also liked Leah Harvey’s wide-eyed Miranda, and Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar as the drunken duo of Stefano and Trinculo.

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Jade Anouka as Ariel, with The Tempest company

It’s easy to know how to feel about performances as good as these. Trickier for me is the women’s prison setting, with which I have to admit, I have a few issues.  To start with the good: it does bring out the themes of imprisonment within the play, which I hadn’t really noticed before – and references to Prospero’s ‘cell’ suddenly gain a whole new meaning. The minimal set, and basic prison uniform costumes, prove that you don’t need fancy and beautiful settings to make Shakespeare work, lovely though they sometimes are – if you have performances like these, the words are enough.

 

But to me, the whole thing feels… apologetic, as if they felt the need to come up with an elaborate construct to justify the all-female cast. Why? Propeller Theatre  – for example – do all-male Shakespeare, but they don’t feel the need to justify it by setting their productions in an Elizabethan playhouse. Performances this good do not need justification.  I think my unease was increased further by a phrase used by director Phyllida Lloyd in the programme: “We felt that by putting the girls into prison uniform they were instantly freed and instantly androgynous.” Perhaps that’s true, but it also has shades of the patriarchal demand that if we wish to be taken seriously we must be less female.

Maybe all this felt necessary just four years ago when the first of this trilogy (Julius Caesar) was staged, but I’m not sure it is now, given some of the casting we’ve seen in recent years – whether that’s Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, or Michelle Terry as a brilliant Henry V (see here) in the highly mainstream setting of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, or Glenda Jackson’s upcoming Lear.

Perhaps it makes more sense in the context of the rest of the trilogy, as I’ve only seen this last part of it. Perhaps we haven’t come as far as I’d like to think. Perhaps we’ll only know in twenty years’ time, when Jade Anouka might be playing Prospero on the main stage at Stratford. Here’s hoping.

https://www.donmaratkingscross.com/