Private Lives – October 2012


By Noel Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th October 2012

Another excellent performance from all the cast, with even more detail and even more laughs. No changes to report on the set or staging, although I forgot to mention last time about the Rites Of Spring dance which Amanda did specifically to annoy Elyot during Act 2. She did the modernistic choreography very well, and we learned in the post-show that Amanda’s flat was in the same street where Diaghilev’s company performed, so the choice of music and dance was both deliberate and effective.

Anna-Louise Plowman was much more kittenish tonight as Sybil, while Anthony Calf gave Victor a wider range of emotions. Toby Stephens was clearer tonight, and delivered some great lines with impeccable timing, and his scenes with Anna Chancellor showed a greater intimacy between the two main characters. The fight was still good fun too. The whole evening was just about as good as you can get with this play.

From the post-show we learned that they had deliberately avoided doing Noel Coward impersonations, which led to the dialogue sounding very modern and fresh. The director had insisted on running acts one and two together, which meant the technical crew had to work very hard to change the set in less than one minute! The cast had all contributed to the creation of each character, and had done a lot of work on the back stories too, including how they would have got to Deauville, how the cars would have been lifted off the ferry, etc. They weren’t expected to know their lines in advance – Jonathan Kent is apparently very good at creating a relaxed rehearsal room – but Anna Chancellor found that when the scene was right, the memorising would happen, not before. There were no understudies for this run – they just had to go on, which led to some stories from other productions where substitute actors had to read a part. Apparently Jonathan Kent had to go on for a missing actor during The Tempest at the Almeida, reading from the script. (You might think that would have taught him to cast understudies in the future, but obviously not.) The cast seemed to be having a good time with this production, and from the numbers staying behind tonight they were clearly doing a good job.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Private Lives – September 2012


By Noel Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 21st September 2012

The very first performance, and already they’ve got the characters established. We were a good audience as well, laughing early and plentifully throughout the evening, so we got them off to a good start. With such strong casting for all the parts the two leading roles didn’t dominate as much as usual, and the overall production was the better for it. The final argument between Sybil and Victor was very strong, and made Elyot and Amanda’s sneaky exit even funnier, partly because it echoed Victor and Sybil’s entrance at the end of the second act beautifully.

The sets were also beautiful. The stage itself had been raised up for this production, with Art Deco scalloped edges at the front and stylish black herringbone floorboards running front to back. About halfway back there were a number of small lights set into the floor which glowed like the lights of the town for the first act and were covered with a carpet for the rest of the play. The balconies themselves were splendid. A large picture frame spanned the width of the stage, with the two sets of French windows underneath. The balconies were also curved outwards a little, and the ironwork of the railings was all curves. There were tall gauzy curtains behind all this, and the effect was of sumptuous luxury. The costumes were a perfect match for all of this elegance.

The interval was taken after the second act, so the scene change between acts one and two had to be brisk. Victor and Sybil remained on their respective balconies when the lights went out, and the crew immediately brought on the furniture for the flat and started setting it up. There was a chaise on the left of the stage, a scooped sofa at the front and a single chair with side table on the right further back. A carpet was rolled out in the centre. Meanwhile, the balconies which were on the revolve had rotated round to the back, revealing the rest of the flat with its Art Deco Chinoiserie style wallpaper, contemporary pictures on the walls, concealed swing door to the kitchen (identifiable by the decorative plate hanging there), dining table and chairs and a grand piano on the left hand side. The main door was in the centre, and when it opened up the balcony railings became the landing railings – a nice touch. There were also two bedroom doors, one on each side of the stage, and plenty of other matching items, with masses of cushions everywhere.

I won’t go into the story: the performances, however, are another matter. I’ve already commented on the strong casting of the supporting roles; now it’s the turn of the leads. Toby Stephens was excellent as Elyot. He’s good at upper class roles anyway, but here he conveyed all the louche arrogance of this immature but charming character extremely well. The only minor point was that I couldn’t always hear him when he spoke softly – the Minerva is deceptively small, and even softer speech has to be given a boost – but I’m confident he’ll sort that out before we see it next time. Anna Chancellor matched him perfectly with Amanda’s waywardness and elegance. They managed to make the long second act bearable and even enjoyable, which is some feat. I’ve found before that spending such a long time in the company of two people who are so immature, who can be intermittently charming but are ultimately shallow, self-absorbed and uninteresting, usually palls about half-way through this act; not so tonight. The two actors have so much class that they gave these rather two-dimensional characters a hint of 3D, a sense that they might be real after all (god help us!) with real feelings and experiences. The resulting twists and turns in their relationship, as they unfolded in the second act, became compelling viewing, from the gushy happiness of the post-dinner glow through the inevitable bickering held less and less in check by ‘Solomon Isaacs’, to the final all out blazing row with full-on violence. I did feel a little bit of tedium creep in towards the end, but compared to my usual experience this was a huge improvement, and as the punch-up started soon afterwards I didn’t have anything to complain about.

Anthony Calf as Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sybil did a fine job in these often underplayed roles. Their stiffness and conventionality are just as important to the play as Amanda and Elyot’s wild and carefree existence, and these two nailed their characters to perfection. The result was a great deal more humour, especially in the third act and particularly when Victor and Sybil finally erupted into their own flaming row, no doubt the first of many. I must also mention Maggie McCarthy as the maid. She wasn’t on stage for long, and along with Victor and Sybil I didn’t understand everything she said (it’s a long time since I did French at school) but she was wonderfully grumpy about everything, and again this was strong casting for such a small part. Maggie seems to have cornered the market in maids and nurses; this year already we’ve seen her in Uncle Vanya (Minerva again), The Doctor’s Dilemma (Lyttelton) and here – she’s been a busy woman.

With such a strong cast and excellent production I’m sure this will sell out, so we’re glad we’ve already booked for another performance, the last for this year and the last before the main theatre is revamped.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Sweeney Todd – October 2011


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th October 2011

I didn’t think I would enjoy this as much as I did, but it was a superb production, and although it’s not my kind of thing I’m glad I’ve seen it. Steve would have rated it higher, at 8/10.

I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the set, which was absolutely fantastic. The central roller door concealed the large square platform which had the barber’s shop on top of it (and space underneath for the bodies to be deposited). To the left was the pie shop, with the main counter pushed forward as needed, and the recesses behind, and on the right were a steam whistle and the oven for the pie shop! There was also a large set of stairs which came forward for Johanna’s song about birds and freedom, and a trapdoor through which came various items, including a sofa and a meat grinder (not at the same time, of course). There were electric lights everywhere, and the period for the costumes and set was the 1930s – an unusual choice, made deliberately to bypass the musical’s Victorian ‘baggage’. Personally, I think this period setting worked very well, and gave the piece a more contemporary edge.

The story was very well told, and I was surprised to find how much I sided with Mr Todd and his macabre accomplice in crime, Mrs Lovett. Knowing about the back story helped, and in this production they showed the rape at the back of the stage, up on the platform, while Mrs Lovett was describing it. It was tough viewing, but certainly won my sympathy for the revenge aspects of the story. Of course, I realised who the mad beggar woman was early on, so I settled back for an intelligent and dark Victorian melodrama to music.

And the music was excellent, too. The cast were all miked up, of course, but even so the singing was fantastic – Michael Ball was on great form – and the pie-eating song at the start of the second half was the highlight for me. The choreography for that bit was excellent too, with that delicious pause after the barber has cut another throat before Mrs Lovett announces ‘fresh supplies’! Imelda Staunton is never less than superb, and her Mrs Lovett was wonderfully creepy – she thoroughly deserved her final roasting. John Bowe was a good villain as the judge, and the whole ensemble worked wonderfully well together.

Although I enjoyed some parts of the evening, I found a lot of it quite boring, especially the young lovers’ sections. I found I could hear some of the sung words clearly, usually when there were only one or two people singing, but then the chorus joined in and it all became a jumble of sound. This was also true of the young lovers, who sang well but not clearly enough for me, and I lost interest as I couldn’t engage with them at all. The plot was pretty obvious, so there wasn’t a lot to hold my attention for most of the evening, especially when Imelda wasn’t on stage. And even then, some of the songs went on a bit too long, such as the fantasy human pie-eating. Still, I wasn’t as put off by the murder and cooking as I thought I would, and there was more humour than I expected, so the evening was by no means wasted. Not one I’d see again, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Emperor And Galilean – July 2011


By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Ben Power

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 12th July 2011

We were always going to be keen to see this rarely performed Ibsen, and this production, of a Ben Power adaptation, didn’t stint when it came to the cast or the set. Andrew Scott’s strong central performance as Julian anchored the piece brilliantly, and while the play doesn’t have a lot of laughs, our attention was hooked throughout.

It came across to me as a debate play, looking at religious conflict in general, and specifically the clash between spiritual and temporal power, self-will or God’s will, hence the title. Would Julian choose to take on the mantle of emperor to bring about the ‘third kingdom’ which would unite man’s worldly and divine natures (yes, I know, nutty as a fruit cake), or would he choose to be subservient to the will of the god represented by Jesus Christ, the Galilean? Given that these early Christians are so full of the Holy Spirit that they joyfully massacre anyone who follows a different path, it’s a tough call, especially as Julian has lived his life on the brink since Constantius had the rest of his family murdered when he and his brother, Gallus, were small boys.

Raised in Cappadocia as a devout Christian, Julian was brought back to Constantinople with his brother Gallus when they were young men, and kept close to the Emperor to prevent them from taking their revenge. Gallus appears to be honoured by Constantius when he’s given the title ‘Caesar’, and anointed as Constantius’s heir, but then he’s immediately sent to wage war against the Persians. I assume Constantius hoped he would be killed in battle, but in fact he’s victorious, and so he’s sent to Cappadocia as Governor, where he cracks down hard on the locals who’ve taken to fighting each other over religious differences. Finally, with Gallus seeming unkillable, Constantius brings him back to Constantinople, where he dies of something or other, i.e. he’s poisoned.

We hear most of this by report, only seeing Gallus himself in the opening scene. Meanwhile Julian, the nervy sensitive type, is worried about his future. He feels he has a destiny, but what is it? His faith in the Christian god is clearly waning, and he deliberately chooses to play hooky in Athens where he can study at university and find out the truth. Sadly, Athens doesn’t live up to his romantically idealised expectations, so when he hears of a local magician who has brought a statue to life, he’s keen to find this man and learn from him. His friends from Cappadocia, who’ve been with him all this while, start to leave him, and the door to madness swings wide to let him in.

Maximus, the magician, is determined to overthrow the Christian religion, and while it’s admirable that he wants to bring light into the world, and sincerely believes what he tells Julian, it’s clear things are not going to end well. Even Maximus is concerned when first Cain and then Judas appear to Julian in a drug-induced vision, but he seems to get over these concerns remarkably quickly when he finds himself advisor-in-chief to the new emperor. At the end, with Julian dead and Jovian, his general, proclaimed emperor in his place, Maximus expresses his disappointment that Julian turned out to be a dud after all, before indulging in a spot of competitive chanting with Peter, Julian’s only remaining friend from Cappadocia who’s reciting the Lord’s prayer over Julian’s dead body. Their positioning, one on either side holding an outstretched hand, and with Julian’s body down to a loincloth, evoked the crucifixion image used at the start of the play and again later. It suggested to me that the same leader, once dead, could be used by different groups to promote their own, conflicting, agendas, and don’t we know all about that today.

I don’t know if I can use the word ‘set’ to talk about the acting space, as it was anything but static. From the opening scene, with half the revolve dropped away to leave a semicircular chasm with a life-size crucifixion sculpture suspended half-way into it, the stage itself never seemed to settle into any particular format. For the most part, the space was open, and the revolve either dropped or rose to create many levels and locations. There was a low platform for Athens, with a very shallow splash pool and a screen backdrop with a view of the Acropolis. There was a throne room in Constantinople with a throne, a rug and not much else. There were the massive walls of a church, and two equally massive doors, as well as walls for other buildings, including a much smaller church in Antioch. There was one particularly gruesome setting which was on three levels, with the lowest being a kind of basement in which Maximus was evidently doing some heavy duty butchery as part of his advisory duties. The plastic bags and lots of fake blood suggested that many animals had been carved open for entrail-checking purposes, but then why had he kept the remains? Eugh.

The costumes were a mixture of modern and Romanesque, which worked fine for me, and overall the production was visually stunning. The dialogue seemed very fresh, and I have no idea how much of that was the new version, and how much Ibsen. The liberal use of extras for the soldiers, students, etc, added to the sense of historical change sweeping across society, and also created a strong contrast with the more solitary scenes. Ultimately, though, the whole performance depended on how well Andrew Scott carried off the part of Julian, especially as he’s on stage for almost the whole of the play; fortunately, he played a blinder. We hadn’t seen him before on stage, but I do hope we see him again. He showed us Julian’s difficult journey through the twists and turns of political and theological upheaval very clearly, and although it would be easy to dismiss Julian’s character as a whiny, spoilt brat, I never felt completely out of sympathy with him, even when he’s being disastrously insane. Mind you, there were other examples of nuttiness to compete with his, such as Helena, Constantius’s sister, who’s been having sex with a priest believing it’s actually Jesus she’s shagging. She’s another one with the gleam of holy murder in her eye – at one point she’s egging Julian on so much I couldn’t help thinking she’d give Lady Macbeth a run for her money.

This tremendous central performance was well supported by all the cast, so praise all round for a terrific production. We were surprised to see very few gaps in the audience for the second half – for all that we enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be the easiest play to relate to, despite the topical nature of the subject matter – but I’m glad it’s getting such a good response.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

A Month In The Country – September 2010


By Brian Friel, freely adapted from the play by Turgenev

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th September 2010

My experience of this performance was affected by a number of factors. My knee was hurting from time to time which made it hard to concentrate, I nodded off during the ‘quieter’ bits, the audience weren’t the best – lots of coughing and other noises – and this very free adaptation lacked any real depth to keep me interested. No complaints about the performances, although as this was only a few days after the production opened, there may be more to come in that department. No, the main problem was that the story was very weak, and both Steve and I felt we were watching a soap opera on stage (and I don’t mean that in a nice way).

The set was unusual, in that the trees spread their canopy out into the auditorium, which made us feel included in the location, if not the action. The back of the stage was filled with the house and veranda, sloping diagonally back from our left. The rest was garden, including a vegetable patch and water pump. Very effective, but I did find myself thinking that with so much foliage cover, the lawn wouldn’t actually be in the sun very much, if at all, yet the dialogue suggested baking summer heat. Just one of those things, I suppose.

The story was very simple. At a country estate in Russia, the wife, Natasha, has fallen for her son’s new tutor, Alexis, as has her ward, Vera. Natasha also has a lover-on-a-string, Michel. These romantic entanglements all come to a head during the play, with hurt and disappointment all round. The only exceptions were those who hadn’t bought into the notion of romantic love, such as the doctor and the companion, and just about everyone leaves the place, or is planning to, at the end of the play. I enjoyed the scene of the doctor wooing the companion, especially his offer to wait for her reply for a month, six months, a year, to which she replies, ‘you’ll have your answer tomorrow morning’.

The post show started off OK, then paused while we acknowledged all the actors as they came onto the stage in dribs and drabs. Then it became a free-for-all, with many people talking and few listening – I’ve no idea what went on during this phase – and finally things settled down and we got a few questions and answers that were fairly interesting. Alexis’s Scottish accent was the actor’s own; the accents had been chosen to reflect the characters’ class and position. The actors had done an exercise early on in the rehearsal period, of describing each of the characters with a single adjective. Apparently all the women had described Alexis as fiery and virile, while the men had all described him as a selfish little git. This free adaptation of the much longer Turgenev play was first performed in Dublin in the 1990s. Very much an ensemble piece. Most of the cast liked their characters. Some of the audience much preferred this version of the play to others they’d seen; one chap commented that previously he’d left after a fortnight! In fact, there were more empty seats during the second half than there had been during the first.

I’m glad I’ve seen it, but equally glad we haven’t booked for another performance.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Oedipus – November 2008


By Sophocles, translated and adapted by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Olivier Theatre

Saturday 15th November 2008

What a journey we had to get here. The road past Haywards Heath station was closed off, so we had a long detour to reach it another way. Then there were roadworks outside Waterloo East that made us take another detour. At least, I thought, the Lyttelton performance will already have started, so the Ladies will be relatively empty. Not so; the Lyttelton performance was also starting at three o’clock, and the place was hoatching (Heaving, adjectival description of a busy location – Wikipedia). All this, and having to put our rucksacks into the cloakroom, meant we made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare. Still, as I told Steve, if we think we’re having a bad day, what about Oedipus? How we chuckled.

The set was fantastic, though I was a little distracted by its brilliance. We’d seen the dome taking shape in the workshops during a backstage tour, and now we could see it completed. It filled the centre of the Olivier stage, and was tipped slightly forward. The surface was like weathered copper, slightly roughened, and with patches of copper colour mixed with the green. It reminded me of a globe map, with the copper as land and the green as sea. There was a large doorway towards the back, facing the audience, with two vast metal doors between chunky posts and lintel, and to our left, near the front of the stage, was a long table with two matching benches. Panels at the back of the stage opened about four times when people arrived, one on each side, and each time there were trees on display. The first time they were all silver, the second time vultures had been added, and the third time they were golden autumn colours. The fourth time they were blasted stumps. (I hope they’re mentioned in the playtext, as I can’t remember exactly when they happened.)

The set used the slow revolve to perform a complete circle during the course of the play, finishing shortly before Oedipus arrives, covered in blood, for his final speeches of suffering. The table and benches didn’t move at all, however, and this was what distracted me briefly, as I looked for the groove that had to accommodate whatever was supporting the table. I spotted it fairly quickly, and I also noticed some of the chorus, when they were sitting on the benches, having to adjust their feet from time to time as the floor passed underneath them. Still, it was only a minor distraction.

The chorus was very good, with plenty of singing, chanting and speaking, often interleaving their lines. I thought the translation/adaptation was excellent. It kept the feel of a Greek tragedy, with some nicely poetic rhythmic lines, but also introduced some apposite modernisms, such as Creon saying he’d hang every terrorist. There were fine performances from Ralph Fiennes as the man who curses himself, and Clare Higgins as the mother who finds she’s married her son. Both were over-confident and scornful of the gods and prophecy, only to find the truth too much to bear. The other characters  were also very good, especially Jasper Britton as Creon, who, despite his apparently sincere declaration that he wasn’t seeking the top job, looked remarkably comfortable in the role once he’d got it. Also Alan Howard was powerful as Tiresias, the blind seer who gives Oedipus his first cryptic warnings of the doom to come. The question was asked several times, if Tiresias was so smart, how come he didn’t spill the beans a lot earlier and prevent all this suffering? Thebes is in a pretty bad way, crops not growing, women not having proper babies (buckets of blood were mentioned), and food apparently rotting in folk’s mouths (I assume this was poetic rather than literal). There’s no satisfactory answer to this question, except that Tiresias serves Apollo, so we’ll just have to assume that Laos, the previous king and Oedipus’s daddy, upset Apollo big time, and that’s why the entire family, and the country, suffers so much.

For Oedipus’s final appearance, the doors dropped down, and the panels at the back slid open to reveal emptiness. Oedipus gets a brief chance to be with his children, hugging his two little girls, before being sent inside on Creon’s orders, away from the public view. Creon tries to stop the girls from helping him, but I noticed that the elder – Antigone, I assume – escapes his clutches to lead her father off (she’ll defy Creon again, but that’s another play). The stage is left to the chorus and one or two of the other characters. As the chorus spreads out across the stage, the lights dim, and finally go out.

I love the way Greek drama is so direct. The characters speak lines that would rarely, if ever, come out of ordinary people’s mouths, yet, like Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, they can be so much more moving. Also, we get to hear all sorts of arguments and points of view debated and discussed. We do also have to put up with unpleasant violence and lots of deaths, but on the whole I think it’s a fair price to pay, especially as performances tend to come in under two hours. This production was well worth the effort to get here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at