Tag Archives: 2010

Champion of the North West

David Thacker, Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

The moment you walk into the Octagon you sense the welcome. You notice how patiently the box office manager is taking a customer through her next booking for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, explaining how it sits in the season ticket scheme. 8 shows for £88 if you’re asking; 4 for £54. Pretty good value by anybody’s standards.

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Beauty Queen

The Martin McDonagh phenomenon is a curious one. He burst upon the world in 1996, aged 26, born in Camberwell, the son of Irish parents. The quirk of fate that placed him in south east London may or may not have been the making of him. But by pure accident, it put him, whether he had contact or not with them, with what was to become the abiding zeitgeist of the mid Nineties, BritArt – Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin.

This may be a complete red herring as introduction to a review about the Young Vic’s revival of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the play that set him on the path to fame and fortune in 1996. But I think it bears a little further expansion. For if Hirst, Emin and Co. have been notorious for one thing in common it has been their brilliant exploitation of shock tactics.
And so it is with McDonagh. In Joe Hiill Gibbins production, you marvel at the way McDonagh over and over again produces if not white rabbits out of a hat at least something akin, if bloodier. Like Pinter, he is a master of juxtaposition, the inane with the cruel. Timing is all.
Take this innocuous little speech from the mother of all mothers, Mag Folan, to her unmarried, 40 year old daughter, Maureen: `Did you meet anybody on your travels, Maureen? Ah no, not on a day like today. (Pause) Although you don’t say hello to people is your trouble, Maureen. (Pause). Although some people it would be better not to say hello to. The fella up and murdered the poor oul woman in Dublin and he didn’t even know her…(Pause) Strangled, and didn’t even know her.’

Now, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the pure idiocy of it. But the Young Vic’s opening night audience simply couldn’t believe their luck. They guffawed, they rocked and hugged McDonagh’s play to them.

Either they were being taken completely by surprise; or like Pinter, McDonagh’s reputation had gone before him (he is now the proud owner of an Oscar for his short film, Six Shooter as well as 2008 BAFTA award-winner and Oscar nominee for the screenplay of his first full length feature movie, In Bruges). Leastways, the audience were determined to laugh at anything that even faintly resembled a joke. It was as if they had suddenly transposed themselves into a Shakespeare’s Globe audience where spectatorship has now become an art form and audiences take positive possession of a play. Wondrous to behold, theatre participation in action.

And it wasn’t just laughing at McDonagh’s satirical jibes. When it came to moments of empathy, the sympathy was equally generous; it came in waves, in bucketloads.
All very heart-warming. Yet, for those of us who had seen The Beauty Queen of Leenane originally, unfortunately, doubts linger.

McDonagh is a writer of bitter cross-fertilisation. Tarantinoesque has frequently been applied to him as he kicks out at his Irish roots with a ferocious comic intensity. In Beauty Queen, set on the west coast, deep in rural Ireland, he takes the stock Irish `mam’ and turns her into the mother from hell, a woman of small-minded selfishness so extreme she will do anything to keep her daughter under her thumb, be it burning letters or reminding a suitor of her daughter’s mental breakdown in England.

The games she employs – one minute beseeching, the next snarling – are, I’m afraid, only too recognisable to anyone who has felt family buttons being pushed.
In Druid Theatre’s original production, directed by Garry Hynes, the dingy cottage and Mag, as played by the monumental Anna Manahan, spoke of twisted spiritual as well as economic impoverishment. Hypocrisy clung to those peeling distempered walls like spattered grease.
That sense of national as well as personal decay is somehow missing from Hill-Gibbins’s production in Ultz’s clever but too open immersive design – you enter through rain and turf to a Young Vic auditorium cut into a triangular staging. It softens the McDonagh effect and draws out unusually large swathes of compassion from this darkest of observers.

The disgust – Mag’s chamber pot emptied into the kitchen sink – and violence – scalding with hot fat, a poker-beaten death – are also nullified by Susan Lynch’s attractive Maureen. Here is a 40 year old who should appear like one whose life has been almost sucked out of her. Lynch, a terrific actor, is altogether too together though her one moment of sexual joy with David Ganly’s appealingly awkward Irish `navvy’ suitor, Pato is genuinely moving.

Indeed, groans, gasps and claps accompanied Pato’s loving letter to Maureen, sent from England inviting her to join him in America in Boston, which is destined never to reach her. He doesn’t know, but we know and the inevitability of Maureen’s last chance of happiness being snatched away gives the play its ready pathos.

The jokes keep coming. And Rosaleen Linehan – a definitive Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days – presides over it all with eye-watering vindictiveness and eye-narrowing watchfulness. She gives a master-class in restrained potency as McDonagh tightens the screws, employing that most classic of tactics: pre-cognisance, letting audiences in on a fate that the characters have yet to discover for themselves.

All in all a fine if too genteel revival that somehow feels more akin to a soft focussed Brian Friel night out than a wilful, wildly savage melodrama.

As You Like It

The Bridge Project is back in town. After last year’s success with The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard, the trans-Atlantic `special relationship’ continues with a double dose of Shakespeare.
The final leg of an extensive international tour, you might think such ambition would leave its mark in terms of jet lag.
Happily, there’s not too much sign of it in As You Like It though The Tempest is another matter. See separate review for that story.
As an experiment in cross-cultural exchanges, The Project certainly seems to be proving that American and Brits do speak the same language if not always with a similar style. The Brits tend to play it casual, the Americans statuesque. Generally, as in movies, the Brits get cast as the villains.
So it is in As You Like It, the sunlit `comedy’ with darker undertones. Sam Mendes modern-dress production emphasises its wintry, shadow side with some unusually violent authority figures. We even get a touch of neo-water-boarding from Michael Thomas’s usurping Duke Senior.
As Rosalind, Juliet Rylance – Mark Rylance’s daughter – makes an engaging heroine: bright, resolutely sparky and perkily mercurial as the androgynous Ganymede. But she has to work hard, matched as she is by Christian Camargo’s Orlando.
Given that Camargo doubles up as Ariel in The Tempest – perhaps one of the disadvantages of ensemble casting – his initially promising firey younger brother descends into a Hamlet-like melancholia from which he seems incapable and unwilling, Rosalind notwithstanding, to free himself.
Elsewhere, the production provides some delightfully fresh visual and interpretative touches. As a play about the giddiness and illusion of love, the production is bathed in a golden glow whilst not forgetting its contrasting harsher political and parallel realities. But the play’s inherent sexual and emotional ambivalences remain undeveloped as too its metaphysical backbone of self-knowledge.
It’s glory is Stephen Dillane’s Jaques. His delivery of `All the world’s a stage’ lends the term `world-weary’ a whole new depth even as his verse from the Under the Greenwood Tree rendered à la Bob Dylan brings the house down. Brilliance is the word, and he has it.

The Fantasticks

Think The Mousetrap and you get some idea of the longevity of this iconic little show. When it opened in 1960 it almost died at its birth. But its producer Lore Noto sank his life savings and his trust into it. The result is a legend that has run for the past fifty years in New York.
So here it is back in London, in a brand new production by Japanese director Amon Miyamoto with an English cast that includes Clive Rowe, David Burt, Paul Hunter (of Told by an Idiot) and the evergreen Edward Petherebridge.
Indeed it’s the white-haired Petherbridge sending himself up deliciously as Henry, a crumbly thespian of the classic school who almost runs away with the show. In the end, it’s hauled back to its driving concept – young love and life’s harsh lessons – by the tunefulness of Harvey Schmidt’s music and the artfulness of Tom Jones’ book and lyrics.
Mixing sentiment with a tongue-in-cheek, impromptu quality that also produced shows like The Rocky Horror Show, Jones and Schmidt pull together snatches of Shakespeare, a touch here and there of music hall and even throw in a benign `Devil’ character to act as overseer and narrator to bring their tender flower to full flowering.
Miyamoto, aiming to recreate the show for a new generation, misjudges certain aspects. Having the audience onstage adds nothing. And Rowe and Burt are allowed to over-act disastrously.
But Luke Brady as The Boy is a find, strong in voice, sincere in acting who delivers that youthful vision of hope and hunger to experience life, `Beyond that Road’, with convincing passion. Along with Hadley Fraser’s attractive, charismatic narrator and the aforementioned Petherbridge, the show’s wisdoms and wit are brought safely to harbour.
Even if Miyamoto doesn’t get it all right, It’s hard to dislike a show that contains the unforgettable `Try to Remember’ – a song that so perfectly encapsulates innocence and nostalgia for a simpler time that probably never was but seemed like it.
Hopelessly sentimental in parts, The Fantasticks still has the power to touch hearts, young and old alike.

After the Dance

It’s one of the more delicious ironies of recent theatrical historiography that Terence Rattigan is in a constant process of being newly `discovered’. Thea Sharrock’s NT revival of this `forgotten’ 1939 Rattigan turns out indeed to be a bit of an eye-opener: biting, poignant and shocking in the careless selfishness of some of its protagonists and the damage they inflict thereby.
In that sense, Rattigan has much in common with Coward, with whom he shares that particular characteristic known as the school of repressed emotionalism. Very British, very inter-war and theatrically very effective in the way it creates layers of subterranean subtext.
After the Dance, as the title suggests, conveys, as does Coward’s Private Lives (1930) the sense of thoughtless, nihilistic hedonism also reminiscent of that truly often `forgotten’ playwright, Rodney Ackland whose Absolute Hell (revived in 1987 by Sam Walters and at the National in 1995) revealed an unfashionably dyspeptic view of 1940s British behaviour.
Rattigan’s focus is pre-war and particularly on the idle rich. At the centre of After the Dance, is a glamorous if `weak’ writer, David, possibly a self-critical portrait.
David may be married and straight (unlike Rattigan) but his self-centredness results in suicide (like an ex-lover of Rattigan’s) and much collateral damage to those around him.
Rattigan’s genius is to gradually uncover these skeins of character to show laughter and wit fading variously into despair, a dreadful loss of idealism and interestingly, by the character who seems most camp and wilful, hard-nosed realism. Rattigan seems to know all about the mechanism of need as opposed to love and in his portrayal of Helen – a young woman besotted with David who `wins’ him away from his wife, Joan through dogged, adoring determination – catches a devastating if universal truth.
Sharrock’s production with Benedict Cumberbatch, Nancy Carroll and Adrian Scarborough at its centre, and comparative newcomers Faye Castelow (a dead ringer for Sarah Miles in the pert Helen role) and John Heffernan as David’s idealistic young cousin is sure-footed, its increasing impact reflected in the play’s afterlife. You fear and care about what will befall its most vulnerable in the future.

All My Sons

This spring has produced some stunning ensemble work in London. Two of the best I’d rate as Lynn Nottage’s Ruined at the Almeida and the triumvirately written A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Now comes Howard Davies’ superb reworking of his award-winning 2000 National Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s great 1947 classic, All My Sons.
In part a post WWII elegy, the play – a story of profit, loss and responsibility – speaks to us now, in a post Iraq, ongoing Afghan conflict Britain if anything with increased power. What, the play asks is the cost of adhering to a principle that says family first and always; and more, if wars are fought to create better lives what is their justification when soldiers return to find nothing has changed, and rather, others have financially benefitted.
Miller, contentiously for American audiences, placed this withering analysis within the bosom of an archetypal all-American – and here, quite distinctly Jewish – family and businessman, Joe Keller (David Suchet) and steadily stripped away every vestige of illusion about the morality by which they live.
Two outstanding speeches by Joe and his former soldier son Chris (a splendid Stephen Campbell Moore) emphasise in Joe’s case the lengths to which he persuaded himself the end justified the means and in Chris’s the death of his idealism. But almost every line, when played with such intensity and truth, pushes us into an examination of the compromises we all make in our lives.
Time again you wonder at the way Miller weaves the philosophical, political and domestic into a unified whole. Sure, the Ibsenesque symbolism intrudes. But Davies confronts it boldly head-on, starting with a great roll of thunder and lightning in William Dudley’s clapper-board and tree strewn frontage. Wanamaker’s Kate Keller stares, hears the drone of a plane and looks like a living dead woman – a mother haunted by loss, detached from the world around her.
Time past lives on in time present. The sins of the father, grief and retribution, reach like tentacles, destroying but also, finally, purging. Still a fabulous conscience-pricker of a play and a white-hot revival.