Troilus And Cressida – May 2008

2/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 31st May 2008

The set was the same basic layout as for Boris Godunov, with five strips of some marbled spongy fabric laid lengthways down the stage. (I checked this in the interval – it felt like textured paper, like heavy wallpaper, but from the way it hung, I’m not sure exactly what it was. The black stuff underneath seemed to be the spongy bit.) To our right, the outer four strips curved up to the ceiling, while the fifth appeared to be cut off and lifted up to create a canopy over the entrance formed by the gap. To our left, the central three strips formed right angles and rose vertically, but were staggered to create gaps. Colour wise, they were a marbled cream. Four grey stools/tables placed in what might loosely be called the corners of the stage completed the layout at the beginning. As it turned out, these larger stools were made up from four individual stools, and these were moved around, turned over, and even cleaned (by Thersites) as required.

Now I should mention here that I can only report on the first half of this production, and then only on the parts that I was actually awake for. It’s a play with difficult language to get across, the afternoon was humid, and the Barbican facilities and management not up to the standard of old, although the temporary seating was much more comfortable than I remember (which doesn’t actually help with the snoozing option, of course). For that matter, the production itself wasn’t up to much, with just a few interesting points which I will record below, and with me being well into my menopausal phase, a little thing like being told I couldn’t take our ice creams into the auditorium was enough to put me off the second half. I decided I could snooze just as well in the foyer as in my seat (I hadn’t realised that drum practice was on the agenda), but I insisted that Steve sit through the rest of it and report back (see below).

So, what was the production actually like? Helen herself gave us the prologue, although as I didn’t know it was her at the time I can’t tell if that had any significance. She walked down the stage, from left to right as we saw it, before speaking. She looked gorgeous in a white strapless gown, fitted to just below the hips with flounces to the floor. Long white gloves completed the outfit, and it was clear we were in for modern dress. The prologue goes into some detail on place names that didn’t mean much to me, and there were a number of soldiers who arrived on stage around whom she was delivering her speech – I don’t remember who they were, presumably generic soldiers, although they may have been meant to represent actual characters. I suspect not, though, as later on they took the trouble to bring characters on to the stage when they were being talked about, so we would know who was who; if they were meant to be doing that during the prologue it needs some work.

The opening discussion between Troilus and Pandarus was a bit dull. The characters’ motivations weren’t at all clear to me. We did get to see Cressida during this, and as Troilus and Pandarus talked, she and another actor mimed her father’s leaving, which did make her situation painfully clear. After Troilus leaves, Cressida then talks with Pandarus. He tries to persuade her to fancy Troilus, while she focuses all her attention on Hector. Both of these actors come on stage, Hector first, and they do some sword practice while the other two talk. Then there’s the parade of Trojan nobility, which Pandarus hopes will turn Cressida’s head. Various people come onto the stage from our left and, in the case of smartly dressed Paris and the beautiful Helen, accept the crowd’s enthusiastic applause like any pair of self-regarding vacuous celebrities (boy that menopause is really kicking in now). I was distracted during this bit as someone had been let in late (despite emails being sent out warning that this wouldn’t be allowed, so be here on time or miss out!), and he was having a discussion with the people right behind us about where his seat was. After a ridiculously long time, he moved to a vacant seat in row B, and we were finally able to focus back on the play.

Pandarus was on the steps to our left, Cressida on the steps far right, so they had their private chat talking loudly across the stage at each other. This was fine, as it meant I could hear perfectly, not always easy with this sort of layout. The soldiers who entered not only accepted the cheers from the crowd, they stood on the stools to give the masses a chance to properly admire them. Troilus in particular came across as quite wimpish in this company, but still managed to snaffle a stool ahead of Hector. One point to note here was that I wouldn’t have known from this scene that Cressida was actually dead keen on Troilus herself, and was only pretending to prefer Hector to wind Pandarus up. I mean that both in terms of her behaviour while talking with Pandarus, and from the little speech she has at the end of the scene, telling all to the audience. Good job I know the play.

The next scene was presumably cut to the bone. It’s often very tedious, and this version wasn’t the best nor the worst. Various Greek warlords strut their stuff, then Aeneas arrives with a challenge from Hector aimed at luring Achilles into single combat. There’s potential to show a lot about the relationships between the Greek leaders, but either this was lacking, or I missed it because the width of the stage meant that too many actors were effectively out of sight for large parts of the scene.

Achilles was being played more like a bureaucrat than anything else. He handed out papers to support his argument about the divided nature of the Greek forces, and was remarkably diffident about making his points. Apparently he thought his silver tongue wasn’t as effective as a spreadsheet with accompanying footnotes. He also laid out a couple of photos of Ulysses and Patroclus in compromising intimacy (they were too small to get any detail, sorry), but given the Greek attitudes to man on man action, I doubt that it’s the indecency that would figure in his argument so much as the waste of valuable fighting time (as recorded on the timesheets which this Ulysses has no doubt filed away meticulously in his tent).

One nice touch with this portrayal was the way Ulysses took the written challenge and started tinkering with it, reading it carefully and considering how to spin it to their advantage, i.e. to get Achilles out of bed and killing Trojans. The idea of Ulysses as a subtle Greek spin doctor has its attractions. Sadly the rest of his performance undermined the benefits, and the rest of the Greeks were unremarkable.

Now we get Thersites and the Greeks. At first I thought they’d cast a woman as Thersites, but once ‘she’ spoke I realised this is a tranny Thersites, all the more impressive because he/she’s done up in a blue boiler suit and wears rubber gloves. Admittedly the makeup and long plait help the female persona, but the voice is still too butch to mistake him for her. Imagine a bitter and rancorous Lily Savage dressing down as a caretaker, and if you haven’t fainted from shock you’ll have a pretty good idea of the character.

Ajax, that well-known cleaning fluid, would seem like an ideal companion for Thersites in this mode, but they just don’t get along. ‘She’ even spits in his coffee. Mind you, it took me a while to penetrate the thick, and somewhat variable accent that Ajax was hiding his lines in – good job this was a captioned performance. Turns out he’s Scottish! And Lily Thersites is Scouse. I wasn’t aware of any other specific accents, so why these choices? Just another baffling point that got in the way of enjoying the play.

They were doing the usual trick of bringing the next scene’s characters on just before the previous scene finishes, which you would have thought would have shortened the running time from the three hours twenty it’s currently at. However, this time they bring on Priam, on his sick bed, for the debate on How Do You Solve A Problem Like Helen? Paris gets a good slap from Priam, which was the best bit of the scene, and Cassandra has a good rant, showing off her knickers to all and sundry as various brothers try to haul her off. Not a great scene, but at least I stayed awake through it.

Now it’s back to the Greeks, with Thersites showing he’s not biased, because he rants at Patroclus as well, while the latter is doing his tai chi practice. The Greek generals arrive, and talk for quite a while, trying to get Achilles to get his act together, but no luck, and no entertainment value either. Then Pandarus has his chat with Helen and Paris. These two came on with the entourage for a photo shoot, and posed for several minutes while lackeys did their hair and makeup, positioned their frocks, etc. Frankly, although this was very entertaining, I confess I can’t remember anything else about this scene – what the characters discussed, why Pandarus wanted to talk to them in the first place, nothing. As such, this scene effectively represents the whole of the production, at least as much as I saw of it, and from Steve’s comments later, the rest of it as well.

Given the lack of anything remotely interesting happening on stage, it’s no surprise that the next scene, where Troilus and Cressida meet for the first time, was where I started to lose the will to stay awake. I did my best, but the stuffiness, the unintelligible delivery of the lines, and the bland acting all conspired to lull me away to dreamland – a much more profitable experience, trust me.

Steve’s views on the second half were not much different. The characters were not coming across clearly as different people, and he wouldn’t have rated the performance much higher than I did, if at all. Thersites’ Lily Savage resemblance was emphasised in the second half, as ‘she’ dressed up for the party between the Greeks and Trojans (don’t they know there’s a war on?) in Helen’s flouncy frock, and wore a large blond wig.

For a sell-out, there were quite a few seats empty at the start, and even more after the interval, with an almost embarrassing lack of applause at the end. Troilus and Cressida were coming back on for another set of bows when the clapping had all but stopped. Still, some of the critics liked it, so that’s all right then.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Cherry Orchard – May 2008

6/10

By Anton Chekov

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th May 2008

It’s always a shame when a theatre like Chichester gets a great cast together, and then fails to do something really tremendous with them, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. To be fair, this wasn’t a dreadful production, and given our experience of the Nicholas Nickleby from the last two years, it may be it just needs more time to settle in.

The set was very sparse, with lots of silvery wood everywhere, stairs down at the back right, and some chairs and tables, together with a bookcase for the nursery scenes. For these scenes, a panel above the stage opened up, like a shutter rising, and a pair of cherry tree branches laden with blossom were displayed. They did look a bit like stag antlers, and there was no actual tree trunk on view, but as a symbol it worked very well, I thought. For the other scenes the furniture was changed much as would be expected, and there was one bright splash of colour for the party, as the curtains screening the rear of the stage were a vivid red.

Sadly, none of the performances were quite as vibrant, except for Jemma Redgrave as Varya, the adopted daughter, who was the best of the bunch. She portrayed someone who worries tremendously, but has a good heart, and who cares deeply for her adoptive family. Her suffering over the non-proposal by Lopakhin was moving, although I did feel they hadn’t quite worked out why he wasn’t going the distance with her. All the other performances were fine, but they didn’t gel into a coherent whole for me.

I enjoyed the magic tricks – Maureen Lipman did very well – and I did get a sense of the inexorable changes that were tearing these people away from the land they felt was theirs, but which they’d become too complacent and corrupt to take proper care of. I also liked John Nettleton’s Simeonov-Pishchik, always trying to get a loan. He reminded me of the choreographer in the ballet novels by Brahms and Simon, who’s always asking people to “’schange small scheque?” Hopefully this production will come on with more performances, but as it is, we were slightly disappointed.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Pitmen Painters – May 2008

8/10

By Lee Hall, inspired by a book by William Feaver

Directed by Max Roberts

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd May 2008

I was bowled over by the first half of this production. The humour, the characters and the painting were all magnificent. I felt the second half lost it a little bit, especially during the last scene, but the overall impression was of a really good play superbly performed. I cried, I laughed, I marvelled at the talent for painting. What more could anyone want from an afternoon at the theatre? Well, a male life model would have been nice, I suppose, but then he would have stuck out like a sore thumb in this play.

The story is a simple one, but I’ve always found this sort of thing tremendously moving. Not that there was a scrap of sentimentality on show – these were all straight-talking northerners, none of that fancy emotional stuff for them. Instead of help and support from the rest of the painting group, the members could expect only fierce criticism and downright hostility, with the odd bit of grudging praise thrown in from time to time – don’t blink or you’d miss it.

The play follows the group from their start as an art appreciation class in 1933, through their experiments with making art themselves, and finishes at the end of WW2, with socialism and the Allies both triumphant and looking eagerly forward to a better future. The stage was a large shed, with folding chairs and not much else in the way of comforts. Three screens above the stage showed us the art works in question, and my first sight of their work almost took my breath away. Oliver Kilburn’s linotype of a miner hewing coal underground was strong, dynamic and well composed. Other works were equally amazing, for folk with no training at all. They clearly had great talent within the group, although they kept it all on an amateur footing.

Their tutor for these sessions, Robert Lyon, was a posh university type, who started off by showing slides of Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo. These overblown pictures need some training to appreciate, and they certainly didn’t grab the miners’ attention. Despite concerns that the rules didn’t allow the working folk taking these classes to do anything that might be considered ‘useful’, Lyon persuaded the powers that be to allow an experiment for this class – the students were only making art as a way of understanding the processes that the ‘proper’ artists went through. The results were indeed phenomenal, and Lyon did very well out of the group, getting a proper professorship, as well as writing and lecturing on the experiment, and basking in the reflected glory of their achievements.

All of these aspects were covered in the play, as well as the fickleness of the art collectors who are always looking for the next new thing. The character of Helen Sutherland, an art collector, turns up at the first class where Lyon has booked a life model, and her comments are generally supportive. The men’s attitudes to her are ambivalent, while they’re completely divided on the subject of life modelling. George Brown wants the young lady to keep her clothes on – shop steward type, devoted to his rule book – while the others seem either OK with it or really keen. The first half ends with the model throwing off her robe and posing for a brief second before the lights go out.

During the second half we see the group’s interest in art, and their keen eye, develop. They’re not afraid to speak their minds, whether the art they see is fashionable or not, and their direct relationship with the pictures, old or modern, gave me some of the best insights I’ve ever had into modern art, or at least the art that was modern in their day. Oliver Kilburn’s description of what the artist was trying to achieve with a piece which was basically a grey circle inside a grey square, was enlightening, although the fact that I couldn’t make out what medium was used was rather frustrating. Was it a painting? Was it a sculpture? Either way, his perspective was very illuminating, and I’m grateful for that, and for the affirmation that we don’t have to know  a lot to be able to enjoy art. The other fun part was during the students’ trip to London, where they visited an exhibition of Chinese art, which has very strong traditions and rules. Lyon was dismissive of the work on view, but the group were able to express clearly what this type of art is about, showing individual expression in subtle ways, where each tiny difference from the long tradition of the past is a major leap forward for the artist. I like Chinese art anyway, but it was good to hear it championed so effectively.

Not all of the group were miners. One, Harry Wilson, was a dental technician, having been invalided out of WWI, and another was a young lad who was related to George Brown, and ended up going off to fight when the war started. I wasn’t clear what this character was meant to be doing in the group, although there was some good comedy around his participation. He didn’t get involved in the painting – we never saw any of his work – and his death appeared to have had very little effect on the other characters. He just seemed to tail off. Still, the rest of the characters more than made up for it. One of my favourite lines was in response to Robert Lyon’s suggestion that the group could vote on some matter that was dividing them. “This is a democracy – we don’t take votes” was George Brown’s emphatic conclusion.

The issues discussed throughout the play covered an amazing range. The effect of supporting artists financially is explored through a meeting between Ben Nicholson and Oliver Kilburn, whom Helen Sutherland has offered to support via a stipend so he can paint full time. Nicholson paints a different picture, one where the paid artist has to work according to his patron’s wishes, and his frustration at being stifled was clear to see. Later on, the way Helen drops the group once they’re ‘in’, as she goes in pursuit of the next unknown, is a clear warning of the dangers faced by anyone relying on her financial support.

There’s also the question of ‘good’ art, and who gets to decide this – that runs throughout the play – and the ticklish question of whether anyone could do what these men had done, or whether they were just exceptionally gifted. Lyon’s point of view was that, given the chance, all people could produce art to this standard, while the group felt that was rubbish, they just happened to be bloody good at it! I took Robert Lyon’s point – there is a lot of talent that even now isn’t being discovered or nurtured fully, but perhaps not so many people would come up with such powerful work as this group did without some sort of training, so they definitely were exceptional.

This is such a rich piece that I can’t put down everything that happened, but the warmth and enjoyment will stay with me for a long time. A superb production, and a great play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Boris Godunov – May 2008

8/10

By Alexander Pushkin

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 17th May 2008

I knew nothing about this play except for its name, and that it was Russian. It was also being done by Russian actors, in Russian. Given my experiences during the RSC’s Complete Works festival, it’s surprising I chose to go to this, but we do like Cheek by Jowl’s work – the Twelfth Night had been exceptionally good. So here I was, knowing nothing of what was to come, but looking forward to a new experience.

Our seats were on the Barbican stage. Actually, the temporary seating ran down both sides of the stage, the former auditorium was screened off, and the acting space was a long narrow platform sandwiched between the two. Still, I can always claim I’ve been on stage at the Barbican, if I ever feel the need.

As we came in, there was a church service in progress at the far end of the platform, to our left as we sat down. Russian Orthodox – lots of beards, incense and chanting. To our right, a man sat at a table, tapping away on a battered old typewriter. I took this to be Pushkin, writing the masterpiece we were about to see, but that wasn’t quite it. The chanting continued for some time, and then the lights dimmed as two characters began the play. Dressed in modern suits, they were talking about Boris Godunov having killed the heir to the throne, Dmitry, and how the people would want Boris to become their next ruler. For those familiar with Shakespeare, this was home ground. I was a little confused by the way one of the characters, a prince, was also interacting with Boris as he told the other chap what he’d seen of the heir’s murder. He and Boris played some game with their hands over the crown, which sat on a small throne between the church area and the table. Then Boris removed the crown, and sat on the throne himself. After that, he became colder towards the prince, but I don’t know whether this was based on the prince’s own description of events or a parallel piece of action. Anyway, it was clear that these two characters, both members of the royal family, consider themselves to have better claims to the throne than ambitious Boris. However, the people love him, so it’s Boris’s crown.

After the church stuff is all cleared away, the man at the typewriter starts to talk. Apparently he’s a monk who’s lived through Ivan the Terrible’s reign, as well as his son Feodor’s, and he’s been writing a history of the events so that the Russian people will know about their past. There’s a young lad with him. He came to the monastery as a boy and looks after the older man, despite having one arm shorter than the other – he holds his left arm awkwardly. When the monk gives him the history, telling him to carry on the work, he decides to run away, and possibly plans to become Czar himself – both Steve and I were a bit unsure on this point. The surtitles were very useful, but it was easy to miss a line or two when we were caught up in the action. Anyway, the young man ends up at the Russian/Lithuanian border, and is nearly caught by the officers of the law, who have a written description of the man they’re looking for. Being able to read, he lies about the description to try and throw suspicion on someone else as the runaway, but this other chap remembers enough of his learning to give an alternative version of the officer’s orders, and the young man has to fight to escape. It’s not exactly clear what happens. He seemed to give the officer a jab in the neck, so that he could hardly talk, but then the action shifted to the next scene.

From here the play really began to hook me. The young man pretends to be Dmitry, the deceased heir, and for all sorts of reasons, people believe him. Most importantly, the kings of neighbouring countries choose to support him, and are prepared to provide troops to help him regain ‘his’ throne. Disaffected Russians also flock to him, and there’s a lovely scene where he greets the representatives of various groups who’ve come to offer him their support. It was clearly done in public, and done to make the most of the tributes – a photo-op.

To seal the deal, a Polish nobleman offers to marry his beautiful daughter to ‘Dmitry’. He’s pretty keen, she’s definitely keen, already seeing herself as Czarina, and they have an intimate scene beside a pool that’s appeared in the middle of the stage. He’s torn by doubt – should he tell her the truth or not? Will she love him as he is, or does she only love him because she thinks he’s the heir to the Russian throne? Eventually he decides to confess, and she’s horrified. She has no intention of marrying a peasant! However, she’s also politically astute, and comes to realise that he may be a fake, but he’s a powerful fake, with a good chance of becoming the real Czar, so she better get on board before the train leaves the station. I remember them ending up in the pool, getting very wet, though I’m not sure now how all that related to the dialogue. By this time I was finding it hard to keep an eye on the surtitles as there was so much happening on stage.

The final scenes covered the fighting over the throne, and were back to being confusing. From what I could understand, the fake Dmitry’s forces are defeated and he’s killed, though whether this is after he’d successfully claimed the throne or not, I couldn’t tell. The program notes inform us that he did actually rule for a short time before being ousted, so I assume that’s what the play was telling us.

These Russian actors certainly know how to make the most of their curtain calls. There were a number of bouquets  handed over, and not just to the ladies. Evgeny Mironov who played the pretender received several of them, and the whole cast took their time to revel in the applause, which was pretty strong.

I enjoyed this performance much more than I thought I would, and I may be more willing to check out foreign productions in future (but don’t bet on it).

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Business Of Murder – May 2008

6/10

By Richard Harris

Directed by Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Friday 16th May 2008

Steve and I saw this play years ago, when it was in the West End, the old Mayfair Theatre, Steve reckons. I couldn’t remember the details at all, just that Richard Todd played a creepy type with specs and a ‘tache. It made it all the more enjoyable to see it tonight. It’s a very well constructed play, and this was a decent production. Some of the twists were visible in advance, some I didn’t get till the end.

Nick Waring was a suitably sinister Stone, the wrongly accused from a previous murder. He seemed a little young, but that was easy to put to one side, as his weird behaviour became more apparent. Todd Carty was the brash, forceful policeman Hallett, and Jacqueline Roberts played Dee, the journalist who reported the earlier crime, and is now a writer. All were fine in their roles, and took us through the twists and turns very capably. It’s a wordy play, although there are some spells of business, as Stone prepares his evidence to set the others up. Once or twice I felt there was too much explanation, but on the whole the pace was good, and there was definite tension as the situation developed. One of the better productions at the Connaught this year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Small Change – May 2008

2/10

By Peter Gill

Directed by Peter Gill

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 15th May 2008

The performances were all excellent, honest, it’s just that the play didn’t really work for me. Both Steve and I came up with the same word afterwards – pretentious.

Written in 1976, this appeared to be an attempt by Peter Gill to write in a Greek tragedy style, but based on ordinary lives, and while there was much to enjoy in some aspects, there was a lot of terribly dull stuff, too. For example, I very much liked the dialogue between the two mothers; it was well observed and reminded me of the Fifties, what little I could remember. The halting, jerky exchanges between the two sons also came across well – the way they didn’t answer each other’s questions and the sudden changes of direction. For humour, there was the chase sequence as young Gerard runs round the stage to keep away from a mother hell bent on giving him a hiding.

But apart from these things, there was nothing to keep me from nodding off, as I did occasionally in the second half. Once the two men had admitted their obvious feelings for one another, going right back to their childhoods, there was a long section where they simply yelled at each other, to no useful purpose. Very dull.

There was no set, just the four actors and four chairs, which were moved around a few times. The action was mainly in flashback, topped and tailed by Gerard’s poetic reminiscences of two photographs from his childhood. In between, there was a generally forward momentum, but I wasn’t always sure where we were, time-wise, and that definitely reduced my enjoyment. It was also a bit confusing having Vincent’s mother alive again after she’d died. I wasn’t sure if that was a flashback or an alternative storyline, and while I normally love ambiguity in a play, the impression here was that the writing wasn’t up to the job.

Not a play I’d see again, but superb performances from the whole cast.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Funny Girl – May 2008

7/10

Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th May 2008

I’m not a great one for musicals, but I was interested to see this one. Barbara Streisand made the part of Fanny Bryce so much her own that it’s understandable that there’s been no major production of it for many years, so as I haven’t seen the film, this was pretty new territory for me.

Of course, many of the songs were familiar, and the story, despite being based on Fanny Bryce’s life (or parts of it), was incredibly familiar. Piaf, Marie Lloyd, etc. all seemed to have similar themes to their life stories. But here we only get to see the unpromising beginnings, the rise to stardom and the glory days – no descent into post-stardom for this show.

To get across the show-biz nature of the piece, most of the sets showed the back wall of the theatre itself, which also doubled as the outside walls of the apartment blocks in the run down area Fanny comes from. There were some more opulent sets as well, for when she’s made it big, but I really don’t remember noticing the changes, they were done so slickly.

The story is one long reminiscence, as Fanny prepares to go on stage. Starting with her early attempts to get a job, we see her shoehorn her way into a tall, leggy chorus (she’s short and plump), take over the act completely by improvising comic business, and gradually make herself the star of whatever show she happens to be in. She’s helped in this by a tall, good-looking chap, Nick Arnstein, who seems to be well-off, and is certainly charming. He bids up her salary with the current management by claiming to represent another theatre, so she’s naturally grateful. Not that that matters, as she fell hook, line and sinker for the guy as soon as she clapped eyes on him. He, of course, is a chap with no real job, who just loafs around the theatre circuit taking advantage of whatever’s on offer. He soon realises that Fanny is an all-you-can-eat meal ticket, and it’s not long before they’re married. Naturally, there’s another chap who adores Fanny, but whom she regards as a good friend, and who would have been a much better match for her.

To do him justice, Nick does actually want to make his own way in the world; he’s just hopeless at doing it. He invests Fanny’s money in at least one get-rich-quick scheme (a golf course or hotel or casino, or some such), and loses it all. Later on he gets an amazing offer of a job that seems to be right up his street, but he realises it’s too good, and that Fanny has arranged it to give him some self-respect. That proves the clincher, and they split up. Fanny had even given up her career to be Nick’s wife, but now she has to go back on the stage to earn her living, and the play takes us up to her return.

It’s a moving story, with some very good songs, and this cast do it pretty well. The musical numbers with the dancers were all excellent, some of the duets were a bit weaker, but Samantha Spiro gave us a very good Fanny Bryce. Her voice isn’t as strong as Streisand’s, obviously, but she got the vulnerability across, and still got my toes tapping to the songs. I prefer musicals like this which do at least have some depth of character to them, so I enjoyed myself more than I expected.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The English Game – May 2008

8/10

By Richard Bean

Directed by Sean Holmes

Company: Headlong

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 12th May 2008

This was the sixth public performance of this new play, if our calculations are right, and also the press night. There were probably a large number of friends and family in as well, as the early laughter from some parts of the audience, some of whom were right behind us, seemed over the top for the action on stage or the dialogue. I always find this off-putting, as it distracts me from my own enjoyment, but fortunately this play was good enough to have me warmed up by the end of the first act, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.

We did manage to get ourselves into the wrong seats at the start, though. We hadn’t realised that the entire first row had been taken over by the cricket pitch, so instead of being five rows from the front, we were only four. Still, it’s only the second time that’s happened in all our years of going to the theatre, so that’s not bad.

The whole stage (including the first row) was covered in grass, with a few bits of concrete off to our left to represent a burnt down pavilion, a few trees behind that, a litter bin far right, and a big juicy dog turd in the midst of the grass. Simple, but effective. The action took a while to get going. First Will arrives, with his father Len, who’s well past his prime and needs a lot of help to get about. Len’s put down in a folding chair to our right, and shows us his character from the off. After demanding a cup for his water, he waits till the filled cup is in his hand, and when Will’s back is turned, tips it onto the grass.

Gradually the other players arrive for the match, and with one replacement player – Gary’s neighbour, Reg – we get to know who everyone is through the introductions and greetings. The banter is good fun; Thiz (the aging rock band member) tells some entertaining jokes, and all the elements of an amateur Sunday team were present. The first act takes us up to the start of play, the second covers the lunch interval, while the third skips nimbly through the team’s innings and the packing up afterwards.

All the performances were excellent. The various relationships were pretty clear from the start, though there were some interesting developments as the game progressed. In particular, a number of people found loud mouth Reg easier to get on with once he’d scored some good runs for them. There’s a long debate on the LBW rule, but mostly the conversation is about their friendships, wives, children, jobs, etc. Towards the end of the match, it’s discovered that Len has finally gone to the pavilion in the sky, and some of the players help Will to get the body off the pitch and back into the van. At the end of the play, the set is as empty as it was at the start, and minus one dog turd.

I enjoyed this play very much. It reminded me of Steaming, the Nell Dunn play which looks at the relationships between a group of women using the setting of an old-fashioned steam bath. This was the male equivalent, all the more so because women were banned from the team, so the men had to provide their own sandwiches and tea. Never having been part of an all-male group, I don’t know for certain how realistic this was, but it seemed pretty accurate to me. Along with the laughs, there were some moving bits, but it never got too heavy, and left me feeling I’d spent an entertaining evening in the company of people I might never have met otherwise.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

De Montfort – May 2008

5/10

By Joanna Baillie

Directed by Imogen Bond

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th May 2008

I’m not quite sure what to make of this play. The characters are interesting, and reasonably well drawn (the performances were, of course, excellent), but the language is so flowery that it sometimes gets in the way. The degree of psychological insight makes it a powerful piece, but the style is not my cup of tea at all. A mixed bag, then.

The set is the simplest I’ve seen at the Orange Tree. A square platform, cut across the corners, with four glass panels to show some uplighting, and stools and a table to tell us which room we’re in. Apart from decoration which looks like someone threw up on the set (speckles of light paint and a wet-look varnish?), this is as basic as it gets. Given the rapid changes of location involved, this was obviously the right choice, and Sam Walters underlined this in the post-show when he said that with a piece that’s new to the audience, it’s important to hold back on the detail and allow the text to speak more directly to the audience.

The setting is a bit vague. It appears to be in Germany, although the location, Amberg(?), is fictional. The director suggested this was because Joanna Baillie needed some remote locations for the play to work, and with the spread of towns and cities at that time in Britain, there were few such remote spots locally that she could use. For once we had consistent period costumes, and given the lack of detail in other areas, I found that helped to stabilise the piece.

The plot concerns the eponymous “hero”, who from childhood has had an unexplained hatred for another man, Count Rezenvelt. We are given a few reasons for this though; De Montfort felt slighted by Rezenvelt, not given his proper due, and Rezenvelt himself admits he was never taken with De Montfort’s pride and  his expectation that others would admire him. Shortly before the action of the play, De Montfort had challenged Rezenvelt to a duel over the flimsiest imagined provocation, and matters went from bad to worse when Rezenvelt not only disarmed De Montfort, but refused to kill him, and wanted to be his friend! This was too much for De Montfort, who ran off, with luggage and servants, only to find Rezenvelt in the very town he was hoping to sulk in.

De Montfort’s sister Jane turns up, and she’s so sweet and gracious that almost everyone falls in love with her at first sight. There’s a lovely bit of comedy when a servant, describing this unknown arrival, goes into lengthy raptures about her beauty, her nobility, the simplicity of her dress, etc. The only person not to join the admiration party is Countess Freberg, an older woman of less than attractive appearance, who nevertheless wants to be admired, at least by her husband. He, poor fool, is the unthinking type, full of good will to his fellow man, and letting us know all about it at full volume.

Jane had been staying with her brother, but left him on his own for a while to visit one of their sisters. He slipped off while she was away, but De Montfort’s servant left her a note so she was able to catch her brother up, and arrives at the Freberg’s house in time to be invited to the party they’re giving. De Montfort, Rezenvelt, and a host of beauties are due to be there, and although she’s reluctant at first, she eventually agrees to attend, provided she wears a heavy veil. Her intention is to sound out her brother, and this she does, by telling the gathering that she, as a veiled lady, has been deserted by her brother. De Montfort, not knowing who she is, gets into one of those “my sister’s a wonderful woman, not that you aren’t” kind of arguments. Then, when Rezenvelt tries to step in on the unknown lady’s side, they’re about to come to blows when Jane reveals herself.

The attempted rapprochement the next day doesn’t help. Despite Jane persuading her brother to at least appear to be reconciled to Rezenvelt, he refuses the offered hug, and simply re-offends with his coldness. At this point we get to hear Rezenvelt’s version of events, and I was glad we did. It would be too easy to take De Montfort’s word for the man’s character flaws, or to completely discount them given De Montfort’s extreme prejudice. However, the antipathy is confirmed by Rezenvelt, and although he claims to have done all he can to be a friend to De Montfort, by now he’s willing to treat him as a sworn enemy.

The Countess Freberg comes back into the picture about this time. She was really upset that so many men, and especially her husband, praised Jane excessively at the party. She’s a woman who tries too hard, and despite her maid’s efforts to flatter her, she resolves to spite the newcomer by putting about a rumour that she didn’t come all that way in difficult weather and over rough terrain to be with her brother, but to find her lover, Rezenvelt. She justifies herself by claiming that the rumour might very well be true, but we saw trouble ahead. Unfortunately, this isn’t a moral piece, so the conniving bitch doesn’t get her comeuppance. Ah well.

De Montfort hears this rumour (of his sister’s lover) from a man seeking his assistance. This newcomer has been told about the animosity between the two men, and reckons he can get help from De Montfort by claiming to have been held back from a promotion by none other than Rezenvelt. De Montfort is eager to pounce on this opportunity, but then the man blows it completely with a passing comment about how Rezenvelt will soon be De Montfort’s relation. De Montfort sends him packing, and then experiences one of those wonderful strokes of luck that so rarely happen in real life but which abound in plays. His servant informs him that Rezenvelt is heading for a very remote house (to see a friend), and will be walking alone, across a wooded area, at night, and it’s a place well known for robbers and murderers. What will De Montfort do? It’s a tough decision, but he’s just the hard-boiled cookie to make it. (Actually, he’s a real softie, which explains why he lost the duel with Rezenvelt – as soon as he realises he’s about to hurt someone he backs off. What a wimp!)

Anyway, his anger carries him through. Rezenvelt is all Pollyanna about the darkness, the hooting owl, the distant tolling of a bell, the risk, etc. The bell is being rung at a nearby nunnery, where the nuns, with some monks, are about to say prayers for a recently deceased sister. Various extra monks arrive, giving us all the news of a dead body, and the deranged murderer, so soon we have both the corpse and its killer on stage, locked in the same small room of the abbey. I found this part less interesting, until Jane turns up, trying to comfort her brother by reassuring him that God forgives all. De Montfort suddenly realises from Jane’s general kindness in grieving for Rezenvelt, that she hadn’t been in love with him, and the full horror of what he’s done grips De Montfort as strongly as his hatred had before. It’s interesting that he doesn’t get to clarify this with his sister; he’s dragged off in chains before they get a chance to talk, and then we hear the reports of his severe illness and death. He dies from being too noble to live with the knowledge of what he’s done, although I suspect heart failure will be the entry on the death certificate.

It’s quite a ride through the emotions, this one, and I found the play not entirely satisfying. However, I did appreciate the intensity created by the production, so that the characters seemed to be colourful and detailed, while the setting was vague and uncluttered. According to the post-show, that was the intention. I enjoyed all the performances, although I particularly liked Christina Greatrex as the Countess Freberg; her character’s dislike for Jane was so clearly visible, as was the effort she had to make to be pleasant at times. Justin Avoth as De Montfort provided a strong central performance. I felt he got across the shades of his character’s darkness very well, and Alice Barclay as Jane was believable as the woman that all fall in love with at first sight. I was distracted occasionally by some noisy people behind us, but on the whole the afternoon passed quickly and pleasantly.

I think I’ve mentioned all the post-show points I can remember in the notes, so I’ll leave it there.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Fram – May 2008

5/10

By Tony Harrison

Directed by Tony Harrison and Bob Crowley

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st May 2008

This was an interesting play, at least for the first half. The subject matter was relatively unknown to me, and the choice of characters seemed really weird until they all came together for the final scene before the interval. Perhaps I should mention here that Sian Phillips’s speech as Sybil Thorndike in that scene nearly put me off my ice cream! (I said nearly.)

The play starts in Westminster Cathedral. There’s a pillar with a marble decorated ledge, two large stained glass windows, one suspended at the front of the stage, the other at the back, and lots of echoing darkness. The stained glass windows were actually projections, which made them easy to remove and replace. The floor was covered with black cloth, also easily removed to reveal the arctic ice. Film projection was used quite a bit, both at the back and on a screen lowered towards the front of the stage. There was also a proscenium arch set with two side boxes, a drawing room type scenario (where Sybil gives her stomach-churning speech), and some good interpretations of snowy wastes. The first of these consisted of a central area with some jagged ice blocks sticking up at an angle, and lots of flat floes around it. The temporary hut was set up beside these blocks. Later, when Nansen and Johansen return to the Arctic, their ship, Fram (means “forward” in Norwegian), rises up majestically out of the floor, as the central part rotates. It was reasonably impressive, but I noticed that the ship’s masts were at right angles to the stage, although the ship itself was angled as if it were a submarine rising from the depths, and at speed. Very peculiar.

The play opens with the sounds of locks being turned, doors creaking open, and footsteps echoing along stone floors – slightly reminiscent of Tales of Old Dartmoor, a Goon classic. Eventually we get to see a character, Gilbert Murray, a dead professor who not only translated ancient Greek dramas into English verse, he also speaks the stuff, and at considerable length. He’s a little miffed that his translation of the Oresteia wasn’t used for the National’s production some years ago (funnily enough, they used Tony Harrison’s instead), but exceedingly miffed to find he’s buried only a short distance from T S Eliot, a man he obviously detested (and who didn’t speak highly of him).  Fortunately he gets another character to explain things to, and this is Sybil Thorndike. He tells her he’s writing a play, in verse, about Fridtjof Nansen, a man they both knew, and there’s a part for her in it. Nothing gets an actress’s attention quicker than that, and despite the total lack of a script, set, costumes, rehearsal time etc, she’s persuaded to join in this ‘improv’ piece. She’s none too happy when she finds her dress is the wrong colour and she’s only in one scene, but those come later. And given the amount of time she does spend on stage (and screen) it’s hardly a bit part.

Anyway, they head off to the National, and the screens at the back show us their progress, including their arrival at the entrance to the auditorium. It’s no surprise when they come down the side aisles, Sybil to our right, Gilbert to our left, although from the audience reaction, you’d have thought this was the first time it had ever been done.

I should mention that canned applause was used frequently throughout the production, and it’s a good job too, as this audience seemed reluctant to play the part of the audience within the play. With one notable exception, we restrained ourselves from laughing, clapping, oohing and ahhing as much as possible – I suspect I would have enjoyed the play more if the audience had been a bit more giving. In fact, there were noticeable gaps amongst us for the second half, and I don’t usually see so many folk leave during the applause at the end. From the first scene, I felt there were jokes that didn’t get a suitable response, and Steve and I reckon those who came just weren’t expecting so much humour. Ah well.

Once Gilbert and Sybil were on stage (again), there was some faffing about with a Greek tragedy mask before we get to meet the subject of the play, Fridtjof Nansen. The screen comes down, and we see a slide projected onto it – Nansen is giving a talk about his Arctic experiences. He gives us a reasonably long opening spiel, introduces us to his colleague from the ice, Johansen, then repeats the opening bit twice more, as slides for his talks in Newcastle and Aberdeen appear on either side of the London one. At least the audience was warming up a bit by this time, so we got a chance to laugh at the humour of the repetition.

The screen at the front also covered up the set changes behind, so when Nansen moves from slide show to dramatic reconstruction, all that’s needed is for the screen to lift, and for the black cloth to be surreptitiously whisked off to the wings, like some dead body being dragged away by an alien creature on Doctor Who.

Nansen and Johansen showed us their ‘roomy’ hut (it was tiny), their bear fur sleeping bag which they planned to split in two now they had the luxury of separate sides of the hut, and their complete inability to communicate with each other. They were described as each other’s opposite, with Johansen being the dark side of Nansen’s soul. Personally I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time with either of them by choice, but I can see how extreme need makes for stranger bedfellows than ordinary necessity. Nansen believed that, as the seas were cooling, the planet would end up covered in ice and snow – everywhere would be like the Arctic. It’s a chilling prospect, though shot through with irony given current concerns about the climate, and it made him a less than comfortable companion. Johansen puts the blame for his own suicide squarely on Nansen’s shoulders; he claims it was the depressing effect of Nansen’s beliefs that led to his drinking and terminal despair. I can see the man’s point. However, being dead means nothing in this play, where ghosts have a remarkably physical presence, so Johansen isn’t gone. Oh no, he becomes Nansen’s conscience and biggest critic, and probably gets more lines in that role than he did when he was (supposedly) alive.

Nansen’s successful trip meant he was welcomed back to Norway as a great hero. His achievement (he reached furthest north) was surpassed a few years later, so he also faced the challenge of despair and discouragement. However, he avoided the bullet, and chose instead to focus his energies on helping the rest of humanity in any way he could. This leads to the scene in a open-plan drawing room, which was using the very slow revolve to subtly change the perspective. It took me some time to spot, and I find that sort of thing helpful in what are otherwise quite static scenes. Various characters were present, all deeply involved in the relief effort for Russian famine victims. There’s some debate about the best way forward – film, radio, newspapers, acting – and the scorn heaped on the influence of the actors is so great that Sybil has to show them what she’s made of. Her moving speech as a starving Russian woman and mother was a little too long, but was also tremendously powerful, and even stomach-churning. The descriptions of eating cooked human flesh have stayed with me longer than I would like, and her wrecking of the buffet was entirely appropriate, if somewhat messy. Delivered as it was by a well-nourished, well-dressed woman, this speech ably demonstrated the power of performance to move people, and Sian Thomas got the loudest round of applause for her superb acting when Sybil made her triumphant exit.

The second half showed us Nansen’s tour to raise awareness and funds to help with the famine relief effort. He was using the slide show again, only this time the pictures were horrific and sadly not unknown today. He left, and Johansen’s ghost harangued us for a while, exhorting us to look at the pictures in case one of the dead bodies moved. He also stomped off, leaving us with the picture of two dead bodies, supposedly a brother and sister. After a very long pause, there was indeed some movement, which was startling, but I have no idea what any of that was supposed to convey to the audience.

From there, Gilbert and Sybil returned to Westminster Abbey, and after reviling T S Eliot some more, they were interrupted by a Kurdish poet with his mouth sewn up (don’t ask me). He struggled to express himself, and that was that. For a final scene, we get to see Nansen and Johansen on the ice again, this time on Fram, as it rose up from the depths. God knows what that bit was about. Nansen meets a couple of African kids, who’ve apparently been frozen to death because they stowed away in the undercarriage recess on a plane, and were taken too high to survive. The idea of these two being explorers of the frozen air appeals to Nansen; didn’t do it for me, though.

There was also a ballet during the first half, an actual ballet, inspired by Nansen’s drawings of the aurora borealis. It went on too long for me, as ballet has never been my thing, although I’m sure the dancer did a great job.

The ooh moment came during Nansen’s second slide show. To soften us up, he commented that when he showed his pictures of the animals on his arctic expeditions, it was only in England that people went… and the audience this time obliged with an “ahh” (a particularly lovely husky was on the screen at that point).

The performances were all fine, given the tedious nature of some of the dialogue, and the confusing jumble of symbolism and realistic, biography and fantasy. The constant use of rhyming couplets can jar after a while, especially when the rhymes are emphasised, as they often were here. There were a lot of in jokes, mainly to do with the Olivier itself, and although we got most of them, it did take the emphasis completely away from the subject matter, assuming the subject matter was something to do with Nansen and his career. The time spent on the ice was less than I’d expected from the pre-publicity, especially as almost all the photos used that part of the set. It was spectacular enough, although not the only good aspect of the set design.

Overall, it was a disappointing play with some good scenes, which could do with some serious editing if it wants a life beyond the Olivier stage.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me