Before The Party – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Rodney Ackland

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th April 2013

Based on a Somerset Maugham short story, this is a brilliant play in an excellent production. The performances from the cast were all flawless, and even though our seats were far enough to one side for me to miss the odd line here or there, it wasn’t enough to diminish my enjoyment. I would happily see more of this writer’s work if we get the chance.

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The Turn Of The Screw – February 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Lindsay Posner

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th February 2013

This story has two main directions, the psychological and the supernatural; this production took the supernatural path and did it reasonably well. The effects were good, ranging from a face appearing at the window in a sudden flash of light and papers flicked off a desk to chalk writing by itself on the blackboard and Quint joining the Governess in bed. There was a fair amount of tension, although it wasn’t maintained for the whole performance; I certainly won’t be losing any sleep.

It took a while to set up the story. The opening scene was set in Sackville’s office, where he was interviewing a young woman for the post of governess to his deceased sister’s two children. He was a strange man; he clearly liked his pleasures, and having travelled in the East he was also able to introduce ideas such as people having a predetermined destiny and the return of a soul. Sometimes he seemed to be making a pass at the woman and at others he wasn’t interested – most peculiar. The Governess came across as a bit nervy, but of the two I’d have said Sackville was the one to steer clear of.

At Bly, Mrs Grose (Gemma Jones) was the kindly, reliable sort, and there was just enough hesitation in her manner to indicate some unseen trouble. Flora was the first of the children we met; she was cute and bright with a fondness for creepy-crawlies but nothing out of the ordinary for that time and place, apart from her strange foreknowledge that her brother Miles would be arriving that day, a week before the end of term.

We never learned the full reason for Miles being expelled – it was couched in general terms – but the young man who arrived soon after Flora’s departure seemed perfectly normal, and with good manners to boot. He was a bit precocious, but that can happen with the privately-educated sons of the wealthy. The childrens’ behaviour did become stranger, and with the appearance of the ghosts it was evident that they were both under some kind of spell.

The interval came after the first appearances of Quint in the flashes of lightning from a sudden storm. The housekeeper recognised the Governess’s description of the man, and just as she was telling the Governess that he was dead, the children burst into the room, laughing. Creepy. (I admit to holding onto Steve’s arm a number of times during the performance – this was one of them.)

More appearances occurred in the second half, with the children clearly being affected by them and Mrs Grose, despite seeing nothing herself, evidently believing they were happening. The Governess’s religious fervour was starting to emerge, and her belief that the children had to be saved from evil at all costs was becoming as scary as the apparitions. With matters coming to a head, Flora was taken away by Mrs Grose, leaving the Governess to confront Miles in a last attempt to force him to turn from the dark side by confessing what had got him expelled from school. He wouldn’t do it, and with Quint leering at them through the window, the Governess had to take desperate measures to ‘save’ her charge.

The ending was less gripping than I would have expected, and from some of the comments I heard, others weren’t clear what had happened. I felt this adaptation hadn’t quite found the right balance; the supernatural stuff just isn’t as powerful on stage nowadays without creating a tense atmosphere, and that aspect was underwritten for me. There was too much normality, and the Governess in particular was a blank slate, making it hard to relate to her experiences. There were hints of her background, but not enough to make a difference, and the effects, while good, were not enough on their own to keep the tension going.

The set worked reasonably well. They used a circular stage with a revolve which had a wall across it, making it easier to change to different locations – the office, drawing-room, schoolroom, etc. In a curve round the back and above the stage were some windows and broken masonry, suggesting the old country house setting. The lake was created by a little jetty with a boat tied to it, backed by some tall grasses. The costumes looked appropriate for period and class, as far as I could tell.

Although the revolve usually helps with quick changes to the set, I found the changes this time were a little slower than I expected, and that made the production seem bitty, which contributed to the reduced tension. The performances were fine, but I probably wouldn’t see this adaptation again without good reason.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – October 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 6th October 2012

This was a very clear, good staging with some nicely detailed performances. I didn’t find it as engaging as the recent Donmar and Tobacco Factory versions, probably because the Almeida is still effectively a proscenium arch space; this was a very good production nonetheless. There were few significant staging choices, but the emphasis on the narrative and strong energy kept us engaged throughout.

The set was a semicircle of castle walls in rough stonework. There were two levels, with five openings spaced round the walls. On the upper level there were three balconies in the middle flanked by two windows, while below there was a large central doorway  with folding metal doors, an ordinary door on either side and doorways on each end of the curve. The flagstones on the stage were crossed with grilles, which could have been used for water if they’d had any; instead they were simply used for lighting effects. There was a bench on each side, and a throne on a dais was brought on as needed through the central doorway. For the second half, with most of the scenes being set around Dover, the benches were cleared away and strips of rough planting placed strategically around the stage, both above and below. There were several electric lights round the walls, and a ridge of stone between the two floors such as in ruined buildings, indicating that a floor used to be there. There was little other evidence of decay so I assume that was just a design feature. This mixture of modern and pseudo-mediaeval was also present in the costumes, some of which looked a bit chunky for comfort, but the overall effect was fine.

The text was a blend of the Folio and Quarto, so it was largely familiar but with the occasional difference which kept it fresh to my ears. They began in near darkness, with a figure coming through one of the doors and lurking near the front of the stage. This was Gloucester, and he was joined soon after the lights came up by Kent for the opening lines. As they spoke these, another man appeared in a different doorway and was spotted by Kent, who referenced him with the line “Is not this your son, my lord?” Gloucester was as embarrassing as usual, play-boxing with Edmund, giving far too much detail about his conception and announcing that “away he shall again”. Edmund bore these humiliations stoically, and was pleased to make Kent’s acquaintance, but his unhappiness with his lot was clear.

The court only just arrived before the king did; Cordelia had to skip quickly across the stage to kneel before her father as he came through the doors at the back. They all had to move when Lear ordered the map to be spread out, as it was more like a carpet than a map. Regan and Goneril stood to the left with their husbands, while Cordelia stood to the right. Lear was much more affectionate to Cordelia in this scene, and it was no surprise that her sisters didn’t like her much.

The announcement of his semi-retirement didn’t come as a shock to the court – presumably this had been discussed beforehand – but when he asked the question “which of you shall we say doth love us most” he definitely caught them by surprise. Goneril looked quite pleased, as if she felt she had a better chance now that flattery was an option. Albany bent forward to have a word in her ear while Lear completed his speech; meanwhile Regan stepped forward, ready and willing to have a go (typical second child). Lear beamed at her eagerness, but decided to go in age order. Goneril was smoothly into her stride, and it was abundantly clear to anyone with common sense that her words were excessive and undoubtedly false. Lear didn’t see it that way though – he loved every minute of it, kissed her at the end and not only showed which area she would get, he stood her on it as well, on the right hand side of the map. He also put a coronet on her head. Cordelia delivered her asides during her sisters’ speeches from the right side of the stage.

Regan was just as quick with her praise, and I didn’t notice any reaction from Goneril when Regan made her comment about coming “too short”. Again, this was laid on with a trowel, and Lear came across as a bit mad already with his ready acceptance of such obvious flattery. Regan got a cuddle from Lear, and I was starting to think he was a bit too affectionate with his daughters – what had gone on in the past? Regan stood on the left hand side of the map, also with the coronet which Lear had given her. Then Lear took Cordelia and not only placed her on the middle of the map but put the coronet on her head before she’d said a word, he was so sure that she wouldn’t disappoint him.

Cordelia’s first “nothing” was treated as a joke, with Lear and the sisters smiling. Her continued refusal to play the game astounded Lear at first, and then he became angry. He also started feeling his chest, as if he was getting pains or tightness there, and through the next section he loosened his jacket or waistcoat, revealing his shirt underneath. When he told Albany and Cornwall to split Cordelia’s lands between them, he snatched the coronet off her head and threw it at the two lords. He was behaving really badly, but worse was to come.

Kent’s intervention was very strong; he stood up to Lear but to no avail, and he left just as Gloucester was coming back in to announce the entrance of France and Burgundy. Gloucester noticed that something was up, but obviously didn’t know the details at that time. Cordelia stood front and centre for this part, facing the throne to begin with then turning to face us or her father as the scene continued. Cordelia was quite scathing about Burgundy’s concern for money and status, and didn’t seem to react much to the King of France’s speeches, but then she’d had a tough day already, poor lamb. Lear flounced off with the rest of the court apart from Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia was almost out of the door after “with washed eyes Cordelia leaves you”, but couldn’t resist coming back to have another go at the two of them. The sisters’ conference after she left showed that they were willing to cooperate with each other in dealing with their father, with Goneril taking the lead.

Edmund’s opening speech was fine. He had the letter ready prepared on a scrappy piece of parchment and was sitting on one of the benches reading it when his father arrived and asked to read it. I was very aware, when Gloucester made his comments about “nothing” that he wasn’t present when Cordelia upset Lear with her “nothing”. So two “nothings” set us up for a serious tragedy with lots of deaths – a powerful word indeed. Edmund played his part well enough, seemingly concerned to support his brother while stitching him up even more. Gloucester was as easily fooled as Lear, and Edmund’s sneering analysis of Gloucester’s superstitions was well received by the audience. In fact there was more laughter during this Lear than any other production I’ve seen.

Edgar was just as easy to fool as his father, but first Edmund had to get his attention away from the delectable young woman Edgar was grappling with when he came on stage. Still mostly clothed, they looked like that wouldn’t last for long until Edmund pulled the young woman to one side, gave her a small coin for her trouble and sent her packing. Who knew Edgar was such a man-about-town? Quite how he got his lines out with all the snogging I don’t know, but he managed it.

Goneril’s complaints about her father’s behaviour seemed reasonable given his outburst in the opening scene, and she was clearly angry at having to deal with these problems. Kent had shaved his beard off, so his disguise was believable for once, with his rough clothes and changed accent. Lear was in good humour to begin with, and I noticed he was constantly calling for his fool. The exchange with Oswald was straightforward, and then the fool arrived. A tall chap, he wore grey clothes and a square cloth hat and spoke with a Geordie accent. He and Lear seemed to have a good relationship, despite Cordelia’s banishment, but although Lear commented on his singing, the fool seemed to sing less than usual this time.

With Goneril’s arrival Lear started to lose his temper, and his curse on her fertility really upset her. She was crying afterwards, though she tried to show a brave face while Lear was still there, and she recovered herself when her husband started to interfere – telling him off gave her something else to think about. Oswald was sent off with a letter, and then Lear re-entered, sending the disguised Kent off with a similar letter. Lear was very upset, and again I could see how this disturbance made him better at answering the fool’s question about the stars. He even mimicked the fool a bit, too. His line “Keep me in temper. I would not be mad” was addressed directly to the fool, an instruction to use his skills to keep Lear sane. The fool’s final lines were “cut shorter” in this production – not a bad choice.

Edgar’s flight had a slightly unusual staging. Edmund came on and called up to the right hand balcony for his brother, who came forward but then pulled back when Curran arrived. Edmund had a quick chat with Curran about the Duke of Cornwall’s arrival, then Curran left and Edgar arrived on stage. Their talk and fight were pretty standard and after Edgar left, Edmund wounded himself on the arm; they didn’t use fake blood for this injury. Regan and Cornwall’s arrival was straightforward, and nothing was made of Edmund’s injury (Regan sometimes binds it up herself).

Kent and Oswald had a right set-to, with Oswald’s long dagger no match for Kent’s machete-like sword. There were some laughs during Cornwall’s interrogation of the two messengers, but even so it all ended unhappily. The stocks which Kent was put in had a wooden back and floor with the leg stocks at the end, and it was placed in the centre of the stage. Kent’s arms were also tied to the sides of this structure, but he was able to take out the letter to read by moonlight.

With the stage temporarily darkened and sound effects indicating pursuit, Edgar came on at the side of the stage to explain his plan for escape. Near the end, two soldiers came on and Edgar fell to the ground and did his “Poor Tom” impression; he’d already removed his shirt, and when one of the soldiers checked him over it was a good enough disguise to fool him. Edgar’s comment “that’s something yet” referred to the success of his impersonation,

Lear and the fool arrived once Edgar left, and the unhappy encounter played out as usual. Lear worked hard to restrain his temper when he found that Cornwall and Regan were unavailable, but the efforts of his two daughters to exert their authority over him proved too much in the end, and he left with the fool, still desperately trying to keep his sanity.

Kent met with another man and sent his message to Cordelia, and then Lear and the fool entered to do the storm scene without a drop of water to be seen. Just acting. Almost revolutionary in modern terms. Kent returned, and the hovel was entered by a trapdoor. Edgar emerged wearing a fairly substantial loincloth, and hid himself beside Lear when Gloucester turned up. Lear was clearly fixated on his daughter’s ingratitude, and his madness was entirely believable and quite touching, though not as moving as I’ve known it before. At the end of the scene, the fool simply left, clearly deciding that Lear was no longer worth following. I forget exactly when Gloucester had his short scene with Edmund, but this took place up on the central balcony, as did the subsequent scene between Cornwall and Edmund.

They took the interval after this scene, and restarted with the dreaded blinding scene. Apart from noticing Regan’s enjoyment of the whole sordid business, and spotting that Cornwall had been given some eye-like stuff to hold after each bit of nastiness, I avoided as much of the unpleasantness as I could. Regan was concerned for her husband this time, after his stabbing by one of the servants, and the other two servants, a man and a woman, were left to comment on Cornwall’s actions and look after Gloucester.

Edgar’s happy philosophising was cut short by his father’s arrival with bloody bandaged eyes, and I found his reactions to events the most moving in this performance. I could see how difficult the situation was for him, pretending to be the bedlam beggar Poor Tom and helping his blinded father to Dover to commit suicide. Tough for anyone, but especially after everything he’d already gone through. Edgar’s later description of the high cliff was very good, and I was more aware this time that they were just standing in a field or similar at the time.

Meanwhile, back at Albany’s HQ, Goneril arrived with Edmund and was informed of her husband’s strange attitude. She gave Edmund a long kiss before he left, and although Oswald looked a little uncomfortable as he stood there, I didn’t get the impression that he’d been as close to his mistress as in some productions. The news of Gloucester’s blinding interrupted the marital row, and Goneril was naturally worried about the proximity of Edmund to her newly-widowed sister.

Cordelia made a brief appearance as Queen of France, sending out people to find her father, and then Regan had her unsatisfactory conversation with Oswald. The scene at the top of the ‘cliff’ was good, and then Lear turned up, stark mad. There was some humour in this part, and the dialogue was nice and clear. Oswald was soon killed and his letter taken and read by Edgar, who then took Gloucester off to safety.

Lear’s awakening was nicely done, and then there were the usual preparations for the battle, followed by the final post-battle scene with all its revelations. Edgar and Edmund had a proper fight, and when Lear returned with Cordelia, another man was carrying her body. Lear did a lot of chest clutching again before he died, and for once the bodies of Edmund, Goneril and Regan weren’t cluttering up the stage. Kent got up and left after saying his final lines, and Edgar said the play’s closing lines with sadness and a sense that he accepted his new position.

The staging was so straightforward that I’m surprised to find so little to note up. The dialogue was mostly clear and intelligible, which helped a lot, and the details of the story came out very well. The pace was brisk, and although I wasn’t as moved this time, I did enjoy the production very much.

Jonathan Pryce gave an excellent central performance as Lear, with lots of detail and a willingness to let the character be unlikeable at the start. This was one of the reasons I felt less emotionally involved, as Lear was so obviously unbalanced from the beginning that the other relationships didn’t quite gel for me. Why would Kent be so loyal? Cordelia may well have been the pampered one, but she’s not stupid and she sees what’s going on, so why would she be so unaware of her father’s instability? The pace of the performance kept me from dwelling on these points, but there was a general sense that this was a production which hadn’t plumbed the depths of meaning in all areas, even though it hung together pretty well.

Goneril was played by Zoe Waites who is always superb, and this was another great performance. Jenny Jules played Regan, and I found her dialogue not as clear as the others which was a surprise. Her performance was fine, though not as detailed as some, but that may have been down to the production choices. Phoebe Fox was a winsome Cordelia, and Ian Gelder a dependable Kent with flashes of temper in his insults to Oswald. Clive Wood’s Gloucester was another good portrayal, and I liked Richard Goulding’s Edgar. The rest of the cast were fine and the audience were very appreciative at the end, and rightly so.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Children’s Children – June 2012

6/10

By Matthew Dunster

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Monday 11th June 2012

The title of this play is meant to reflect the concern over what sort of planet we’re leaving to our children’s children, but apart from a long speech about the oil industry ruining parts of our planet – the environment and the people’s lives – this wasn’t really what the play was about. It concerned the relationships among a group of people, several of whom had been friends from their younger days, and charted the ups and downs in their relationships as the wheel of fortune turned. At times it was very funny, at times it was a bit dull, but although it could easily be criticised for a number of reasons, the overall story arc was strong and compelling enough to keep me in my seat for the second half – not everyone felt that way judging by the gaps after the interval.

Each act was introduced by a monologue from one of the characters, with a final monologue rounding the play off. For the first act we heard from Louisa, Michael’s second wife and the outsider of the group. Michael had previously been married to Clare, and with the other couple, Gordon and Sally, they had all gone to drama school together. None of them had made it big until a few years earlier, when Michael suddenly became ‘Mr Saturday Night’ through TV presenting, rather than acting, and after a couple of years not seeing much of each other, Gordon and Sally are visiting Michael and Louisa for lunch. Also included are Ellie, Gordon and Sally’s daughter and Michael’s god-daughter, and her boyfriend Castro, a wannabe film director.

The set was a stylish modern sitting room, with shelves on the right and windows to the left, doors either side, and prints of comic characters (Flash, Green Lantern, Iron Man) on the walls. The bottom shelf held a vast array of alcoholic drinks, the second shelf was mainly books, while the top shelf had a big ‘WOW’ along with some pottery. The colours were plain but strong, and the overall effect was of money and success. Louisa was a nervous talker, frequently changing direction, while Michael was a typical alpha male, dominating the conversation and giving excessive amounts of detail about the way sherry is made – his latest thing. Gordon was an unpleasant straight talker, while Sally was clearly having a lot of problems coping with their situation, which became clearer as the scene played out. Castro was a nice lad, almost the only decent character in the play in some ways, but there were already signs that he wouldn’t actually achieve anything despite his strong desire to address social problems in his films. His African background – his family were Zambian – gave him an interest in the exploitation of that continent’s natural resources and people, hence his knowledge of oil exploration and gas flaring later on.  Ellie was the most obviously obnoxious character from the word go; a sulky, spoiled brat, she didn’t like anything much, and although her father’s violence and threats towards her were shocking to watch, I got the impression that she was too far gone to respond to anything else.

After some initial chat, Gordon makes it clear that he wants to talk with Michael alone, so the others are hustled out of the way. Gordon spins Michael a real sob story about his financial difficulties, and Michael is broadly sympathetic. He’s made it big, the money’s no big deal to him, lifelong friends, etc. Gordon finally produces a figure of £50, 000 – enough to clear his immediate debts, and Michael is fine with that. Then the figure gets bumped up to include all the debts, and Michael’s suggesting £100,000. Then there’s the need for Gordon to set himself up in his own business, making use of his gardening skills – he’s had no acting work for a long time – so it’s up to £175,000. And finally Gordon plays his trump card; Ellie’s pregnant, Michael’s her god-father, so before you know it, the total sum is £250,000, and in cash! (So the banks won’t get their hands on it.) At this point, it looks like a generous gesture from one friend who’s had huge success, towards another friend who’s completely out of luck.

The second act began with Sally’s monologue, when she told us how important Dorset was to her. Apparently she and Gordon had been joined on their honeymoon by Michael and Clare, with the group getting so smashed on the wedding night that Sally fell asleep in wedding dress on the floor while the other three ended up in the bed together. What larks! The set had been changed to show a garden setting, with the walls swung round to give the French doors and a garden wall, a table and chairs, lounger and a swimming pool at the back. This was the house in Dorset which Michael mentioned he was buying in the first act, which was close to where Sally and Gordon got married. They were now staying at the house from time to time, usually when Michael and Louisa weren’t there, and much more often than Michael and Louisa knew about. On this occasion Ellie and Castro, along with their baby (whom we never see) were also staying, and it was during the family rows that I started to nod off a bit, family rows being much the same wherever you go. It’s fine to show these things in all their natural awfulness, but they don’t necessarily have dramatic value nor do they create any tension or sense of jeopardy. Still, once Michael and Louisa turned up, there was plenty of both.

The end of Sally’s monologue had hinted at a change of fortune for Michael, and so it was no surprise when he and Louisa turned up unexpectedly at their country retreat to avoid the press. Michael had finally been accused of sexual assault and harassment by a couple of women at the TV studio, and although Sally talked convincingly of his innocence, Louisa was clearly not sure. Michael was in a very bad temper, understandably, but did calm down enough to share with Gordon that, while he intended to tell Louisa the truth, he wasn’t sure yet which truth it would be – it depended on how many women came forward. He started to put pressure on Gordon over the money he’d given him, the investment in the business, and when he could expect to get some of it back; Gordon fobbed him off as best he could, but it was clear he hadn’t put an ounce of effort into setting up a business. The act ended with Sally getting a call from her agent about an audition, with the prospect of a TV series; the wheel of fortune was taking another turn.

They took the interval after act two, which gave the stage crew plenty of time to set up the third act set – a fancy modern kitchen with a table and chairs to our right and the appliances and work island to the left. The door was roughly in the middle. The monologue this time was done by Castro, who expressed his dislike for Ellie and the whole family. He felt he was caught up in their lives and seemed to want to get free, but would he actually have the nerve?

Since act two, Michael had gone to prison and lost everything, including Louisa. Gordon had died, and act three took place after the funeral. Louisa was there, and with both of their menfolk out of the way, she and Sally came across as stronger people. Sally had been successful at the audition, so this new house was entirely her doing, while Ellie’s looks had resulted in modelling work, and she had also produced a range of clothing for mothers and daughters – completely identical clothes. She was also adept at using the social media as part of her marketing strategy, so although she was still vain, self-centred and thoroughly unpleasant to everyone, she was at least making a success of her life commercially. Castro was very unhappy about this, but despite his strong convictions, the world had yet to see any visible results from his film-making.

This act did develop the attraction between him and Louisa. We’d seen it during the first two acts; she’d been uncomfortable about it because of his relationship with Ellie, especially once he was the father of her child, but she was also the only person who seemed to be really interested in his ideas and passions. The result of this was a ten minute monologue about the damage being done to the environment and local cultures by the oil giants, Shell in particular. He even talked about how people in the West found these subjects boring, and tuned out of any discussion of them, which was true of most of the audience tonight. But it showed us the positive side of Castro, a side we hadn’t been able to see before because the other characters were always shutting him up, and it also allowed Sally to change her attitude towards him; she’d been heavily into charity work when Michael had lots of money to give away, so she had both empathy for Castro’s ideals and an understanding of how often the talk wasn’t converted into real action.

The changes and character development were interesting enough, but then Michael turned up, looking like he was sleeping rough, and demanding that Sally repay the £250,000 he had lent to Gordon years ago. Ellie was so angry that he’d even turned up that she went for him and had to be restrained, while even Sally, up to now the most tolerant of people, had the most vicious rant at him and the other two in their original group, Clare and Gordon. All her resentment of the way they’d treated her, all her suspicions of betrayal came pouring out in an almost incoherent torrent of words. She grasped the work island and was bent almost double as she relieved herself of all the bile and bitterness she’d stored up. And in a wonderful touch of black comedy, when she turned around and saw Louisa standing in the doorway, she became apologetic for having said all those things in front of her.

The reactions to Michael wanting his money back were interesting. Sally and Ellie disclaimed all knowledge of the £250,000. They had been told, by Gordon, that he’d got £10,000 from Michael to pay off the mortgage, and nothing else. (I wasn’t sure if that had been paid back to Michael or not.) The rest was news to them, and when Michael said he’d paid Gordon in cash, he suddenly looked like the biggest idiot in the world. Louisa knew about the loan, but she wouldn’t confirm or deny anything; she was still angry with Michael for throwing away the good life they both had, and was focused on getting him out of the house. She told Ellie to call the police and tell them that Michael was in the house and was threatening them; given his background, the police wouldn’t be happy with that situation. This led to the funniest bit of the play; after Ellie had called 999, she yelled into the phone that ‘Michael fucking Stewart was in her house and she wanted him fucking out’ or words to that effect. After a pause, she said, quite calmly, ‘police, please’ – we all knew what the rest of the conversation had been. [I checked the text later – that wasn’t in the original script.]

After Michael left, the act soon finished, and then the play was rounded off with a monologue from Ellie, again expecting, twins this time. She was ever so proud of her daughter’s first blog (not that her daughter was actually writing it, of course), and she spent some time telling us about the naming options they’d come up with for the twins, one boy and one girl. The girl was easy – there were lots of African names which had beautiful meanings. She had wanted to name the boy after her father, but Gordon? Although it wasn’t the most clear-cut ending, this speech did round off the play well enough, and could be seen as an upbeat ending in some ways.

While it kept me watching, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the play. I can’t put my finger on the reason for it, but it just didn’t fully engage me. It’s fine to pose the questions without having any answers, but what questions was this play posing exactly? It’s still enjoyable enough, and the performances were all absolutely excellent, but I wouldn’t expect to see it again anytime soon.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Filumena – April 2012

8/10

By Eduardo de Filippo

Directed by MIchael Attenborough

Venue: Alemida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 18th April 2012

It was good to see this one again. It’s been almost thirty years since we saw it at the Connaught, in the days of three-weekly rep (pause for a nostalgic sigh), and I remembered enjoying it then, even if I didn’t remember the story. The set was lovely, the performances all very good, and there were many loud laughs during the afternoon.

The set was wonderfully detailed, with an overall wash of sepia and lots of flowers everywhere creating a strong Mediterranean feel. The location was a small terrace inside a large house, with steps up to the first floor hidden away at the back, and doors to the kitchen and Domenico’s study on either side. Above the study doors was the balcony to Filumena’s room, and the terrace held a round table and several chairs, as well as a tree growing towards the back. The costumes were all in keeping too.

The story was relatively simple: Filumena, who has been Domenico’s mistress as well as running his business for many years, has faked a fatal illness to coerce Domenico to marry her. She’s done this to help her three sons, born when she was a prostitute, one of whom is apparently Domenico’s offspring. The boys are all grown men, but she wants them to know who their mother is and also give them a good name, Domenico’s name, in fact, while she still has a chance. In the process she sees off a much younger rival and overcomes Domenico’s natural anger and resentment at being tricked, to create a happy family situation for all of her children.  It’s all the more impressive because, in her situation, the normal solution to pregnancy would be an abortion; she chose to have her children and arranged for their upbringing against the prevailing ethos, and if she had to rob Domenico in the process, so be it!

The morality of her actions was never really an issue given the poverty of that part of Naples where she grew up. The prostitutes were regarded with respect because they were actually earning money and could feed and clothe themselves. And if she did take Domenico’s money to raise her sons secretly, at least she ran his business so effectively that he could indulge himself on the rest of the profits without noticing the shortfall. Her insistence on not revealing which of her three boys was Domenico’s son was important, and even he came to realise by the end that it meant he would never treat any one of them better than the others (nor try to control their lives either).

Mind you, it didn’t stop him trying to find out, which led to one of the funniest sections of the whole play (and there were several to choose from). Before their second wedding, the real one, Domenico spent some time alone with the boys, and tried to find some clues in the way they behaved or in their talents, to show which one was his son. At first he thought the womanising tailor could be the man; they shared a love of the fair sex. But then the others confessed to the same feelings, even if the married son was too scared of his wife to act on his inclinations. Singing was the next test, but no luck there either – who knew there could be three tone-deaf Neapolitans! This was hilarious stuff.

Samantha Spiro was excellent as Filumena, and Sheila Reid gave a nicely detailed performance as her maid, Rosalia. Clive Wood and Geoffrey Freshwater made a good double act as Domenico and his sidekick Alfredo, and the rest of the cast supported them really well with lovely performances. As we left the theatre, one man was even booking to see it again, and I can understand why.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

My City – October 2011

7/10

By: Stephen Poliakoff

Directed by: Stephen Poliakoff

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th October 2011

Stephen Poliakoff is very good at evoking memories, and this play has more than its fair share. When Richard finds his former head teacher lying on a bench by the river, this chance encounter triggers a memory-fest for characters and audience alike. It’s fascinating to look at the layers of memories, the different perceptions we have when we’re young, and of course the different memories each person can have of the same event, and the different meanings those memories evoke.

The overall story was another simple one, though there were a lot of other stories told during it. After Richard meets Miss Lambert on the bench, he gives her his mobile number, as he wants to keep in touch. She’s more enigmatic about that, but does arrange to meet him and Julie, another former pupil who’s been friends with Richard since school. They meet up in a bar at the top of a huge shopping mall, and after a while arrange to meet again an hour later down in the subterranean depths of the same mall. Miss Lambert spends her nights wandering around London, and this strange behaviour, plus his fond memories, have hooked Richard into finding out more.

Downstairs they find that Mr Minken and Miss Summers are also joining them for a drink. Quite a lot of drink, in fact. These were two other teachers from the same school whom we’ve already met through flashbacks showing us Miss Lambert’s unusual style of school assembly. I don’t remember any of my teachers impersonating large dogs or big black birds during our school assemblies – would have been more fun if they had. Mr Minkin is carrying a suitcase, and explains that he’s clearing his brother’s house out. The suitcase has the things he’s keeping, and these are all old toys he had when and his brother were growing up – as in the assemblies, the toys are used to help tell more stories.

Eventually Mr Minken offers to make supper for the whole group – he’s an excellent cook – and so Richard and Julie find themselves in another basement, this one so close to the underground that they can hear the rumble of trains quite clearly through the walls. A cornucopia of childhood memories is stored in this room, including many of the large pictures which a whole class had made together. There are also some slides and a recording of Richard and Julie doing one of their presentations to an assembly. With Richard’s story of his successful career crumbling, Miss Summers leaves, and then the rest go to a 24-hour café to continue their nocturnal journey. When Julie leaves to take Mr Minken home, Richard and Miss Lambert are left to have the final confrontation, one which will hopefully heal some of her pain and bring her back to the light that she’s been avoiding.

So it’s a ramble through the past, as is usual with Poliakoff. What makes this play interesting is the story-telling aspects. Miss Lambert is particularly prone to telling little stories throughout the play, and during the assembly ones she encourages the children (i.e. us) to listen to the sounds they can hear outside the classroom. It’s amazing how powerful these sounds can be in bringing pictures to mind, and the sound effects were very well done. Many of the stories seemed unbelievable at first, but Poliakoff is known for his research into little known areas of history, so I would guess that they were mostly based on reality. [After checking the program notes, only the Titus Meredith story was entirely made up.]

I found the story-telling so good, in fact, that I felt the energy of the play dropped a bit in the second half. We had been kept in suspense, wondering what had caused Miss Lambert to become nocturnal. We toyed with the idea that she and her fellow teachers were deliberately finding old pupils and sorting their lives out in some way, even going so far as to bump them off perhaps (Sweeney Todd’s still a bit fresh in the memory). Once the real story started to come out, I felt a bit deflated; it was much more fun having the possibilities in front of us compared to the relatively dull reality. It was still interesting, though not as much.

The set was amazing, with lots of different locations created very quickly with lighting effects and some furniture and props. The basement location was the most elaborate, while the cafes were simply tables and chairs with a few signs. The assemblies were represented with two or three small red chairs, kid’s size, and the opening and closing scenes had a large head on the back wall and a park bench – nice and simple.

The performances were all excellent. Tracey Ullman was very prim and proper as Miss Lambert, even reminding me of the Queen at times. Her story-telling was marvellous, and I could well imagine children being inspired by such a teacher. David Troughton was very good as Mr Minken, especially telling the story of his father’s escape from Germany after the Nazis came to power. We were aware of the importance of his little model plane and the box he was carrying, and nearly lost, and I found this the most moving story of the lot.

Sorcha Cusack was lovely as Miss Summers, and Sian Brooke was very good as Julie, tough as nails to begin with, but showing her kindness as well. Hannah Arterton played several waitresses with varying attitudes, ranging from hostility to friendliness, and Tom Riley held it together as Richard, the young man whose career hasn’t been quite as dazzling as he pretended. When he was confronted about this by his teachers, he began to stammer again, a problem from his childhood, and I reckoned they had guessed he was lying because he hadn’t stammered before. It’s as if he could only speak clearly when he was lying in some way, or at least not talking about his own life. When the truth came out, so did the stammer and they could tell it was real.

There were many layers to this play – memories, changes in society, strange lives, the difference between children and the adults they become – and I would probably get even more out of if I saw it again. It was enjoyable to watch, and it’s good to have Poliakoff back in the theatre; he has a distinctive voice, and it’s one I’ve missed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Ruined – May 2010

5/10

By Lynn Nottage

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 22nd May 2010

I don’t know what went wrong for me at this performance. Maybe I was tired, maybe I had the wrong expectations of this piece, or maybe we were just too far round the side for this production, but I found it uninvolving in a number of ways.

Firstly, the humour was great, and I acknowledge that in difficult situations it’s normal for people to laugh as a way of coping. But when there’s so much death and violence going on, sometimes the humour seemed to be too light. We’re not used to living in those circumstances, so I felt I needed more of a sense of the hardships in order to appreciate the women’s reactions and the ways that they coped. When working in a brothel can seem a better prospect than life in a village, it’s hard to know just how sorry to feel for these women, and for the people as a whole. Are they suffering? Or are they just a strange bunch of folk who don’t seem to mind living in a war zone? I like ambiguity, but this felt more like indifference.

And secondly, the production looked like it was aimed squarely at the centre stalls. I missed a good few lines because the actor’s back was towards me, and while the rotating set was very effective, it came so far forward that parts of the stage weren’t visible from the side of the stalls.

The set was the inside and outside of Mama Nadi’s bar, somewhere in the Republic of Congo, near a road in a mining area. She takes in girls to work as prostitutes, often because there’s no one else to take care of them – their husbands and families have been killed or are away fighting in the civil war. We see the rebel soldiers and the official government troops – each lot seems as bad as the other – and in between are the ordinary folk, mainly the women, who are simply trying to survive. I was very aware of the wasted lives and the senselessness of the cultural conditioning that rejects a woman after she’s been abducted and raped, because she would dishonour the family.

And all the performances were absolutely brilliant. Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi was central to the piece, and she carried it off superbly, with Lucian Msamati’s Christian close behind as the man who loves her and finally wins her. The music was great, and the costumes and set very colourful. If I could have connected with the characters more, I would have really enjoyed this. As it is, it was still a great performance, and I hope it gets the awards it deserves.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me