Liolà – November 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Luigi Pirandello, adapted by Tanya Ronder

Directed by Richard Eyre

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th November 2013

This was a very good production and an excellent adaptation too; well worth the trip up to see it. We took our seats very close to the off today, as a body in front of a train at Wimbledon had shut off our usual route to the National: change at Clapham for Waterloo. But the Victoria line was still open, and we had just enough time to get to the National the long way round. As a result, we missed some of the foreplay, but did arrive in time to see the central platform on the stage being cleaned by a group of women using foot cloths.

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People – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 2nd February 2013

A very enjoyable new play by Alan Bennett, poking fun at various establishment targets such as the National Trust, the Church of England (de rigeur these days), eccentric aristocrats and modern technology. The porn industry even took a few hits, but mostly this was a slightly nostalgic look at modern times from the perspective of those who were young adults in the 60s, ripping through some of our modern illusions and preoccupations and giving us plenty of laughs along the way.

The set was fairly elaborate. All the action took place in a large drawing room which at the start looked very dilapidated. A swathe of grey plastic sheeting covered the large central rose in the ceiling, the enormous picture on the back wall was likewise draped with plastic sheeting, and there were dust sheets over a lot of the furniture. I spotted two obvious gaps on the walls where pictures used to hang, and there were various items of furniture and bric-a-brac dotted here and there. I assume the tin bath was a ‘leakage solution’. Two armchairs were positioned near the front of the stage facing a small electric heater, and there were lights, tables, etc. around them. On the far right stood a bureau.

The film crew for the porn shoot didn’t change much of this, but they did bring on a four-poster bed along with all their equipment, having moved the central chairs over to one side. They took their equipment with them when they left, and not long afterwards the restoration work transformed the room to a magnificent version of itself. The sheeting covering the central part of the ceiling was removed (downwards, I think) and a properly restored rose replaced it. The tatty bits of decoration were either removed or covered up, as with the pictures placed over the obvious gaps on the right wall. The ensemble worked their way round the room from left to right, making various scrubbing and polishing actions to indicate the work that was going on, and once they’d finished the room looked splendid, if a lot more formal. One thing puzzled me. The large canvas on the back wall had been removed at the start of this process; all well and good, presumably off for restoration. During and following the changeover there was some dialogue going on, and the area behind that wall suddenly transformed into another room, or so it looked to me at first. Then I thought it might have been a large mirror, and we were seeing a reflection of the room, but the image didn’t quite tie up. Finally the picture was dropped back into position, and I’m still none the wiser as to what was going on with that ‘other room’. [Just checked the play text – the author suggests that during the transformation there may be “a vision of the Adam saloon at the rear of the stage”. But why?]

Apart from that minor point, the story was pretty straightforward. Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) was the elder of two sisters, and living in the family mansion which was now crumbling to bits, located somewhere in the North of England. Her companion Iris (Linda Bassett) was the only other resident, and they spent most of their time huddled in a small part of the large room, trying to keep warm. Dorothy’s sister June (Selina Cadell) was in the Church of England in a middle management position (I have no memory for the ranks of that organisation) and but for the recent vote against giving women too much power, would no doubt have her sights set on the top-job-but-one.

June’s intention was that the house be given to the National Trust, but Dorothy, who actually owned the place, wanted to check out other options. When Bevan, a valuer from one of the big auction houses, suggested selling to a private consortium of the very wealthy who would pay handsomely to keep the house for their exclusive use, she found the idea tempting, but in the meantime there were bills to pay. A ‘quickie’ with the makers of a porn film at least provided hot water and hot meals, as well as a trip down memory lane for Dorothy. The producer/director was someone from her past, when she was a top fashion model, and the chance to wear her 60s haute couture again was irresistible.

At last the decision had to be made, and the Trust won the day. The final scene showed us the visitors wandering around the room while a screen (facing us so we could see the film) showed Dorothy in her bag lady clothes talking about the room and its history. The visitors gradually left and Dorothy had a final encounter with Louise, the makeup lady from the porn film, giving her a farewell gift. As she left the now empty room, Dorothy triggered the recorded announcement “The House is now closed”, and that was that.

The cast were all good, but again we had a triumvirate (or should that be trifeminate?) of excellent performances at the centre of the piece. Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell were magnificent, and although there were good supporting performances, particularly by Peter Egan and Miles Jupp, the women carried the day. It underlines the complaints about the lack of roles for women over thirty, when we have so many talented female actors who can dominate the stage at that age and beyond.

While I enjoyed this play well enough and there were plenty of laughs to be had, I did feel it was a bit thin at times. The targets were easy, even lazy ones, and the slick bon mots occasionally felt recycled. The short opening scene, which set up the idea of the porn film, was entertaining but didn’t flow into the following scene, and this got the play off to an uneven start. I did like the scenes with Bevan though, especially his suggestion that the house might be moved somewhere warmer and more accessible, like Dorset. And I liked the way June changed her attitude towards him once she realised he was involved in the purchase of Winchester Cathedral. They occasionally sang hits from the 60s, such as Downtown, which gave us a very strong sense of time and meant we left the theatre singing to ourselves. Good fun.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Doctor’s Dilemma – September 2012


By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Nadia Fall

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th September 2012

I’m going through the annual process of getting my ears syringed, so I decided beforehand that I’d have to put any loss of dialogue down to the cotton-wool effect of the olive oil. As it happened, I found the dialogue very clear throughout, particularly during the second half when my left ear cleared and I could hear very well. The only down side was the couple behind us; coughing is an acceptable sound effect in a play that deals with consumption, but it helps to keep it to the stage. Even so, the performance was very enjoyable and the production better than my experience of it.

The play reminded me of Surprises, in that it presented ideas for the audience to ponder while giving them a fair number of laughs into the bargain. The ideas this time concerned the moral aspects of medical rationing – a very topical subject – and although the stage debates were entertaining, I felt so little sympathy for the artist and his genuine(?) wife that there was no dilemma for me whatsoever. Of course the doctor of the title, the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon, had more of a problem. A bachelor, he fell in love with Mrs Dubedat as soon as he laid eyes on her. His initial snap decision to help her husband was soon challenged as more information came to light, and then the conflict became complicated by his desire for Mrs Dubedat to become a widow – what should he do?

The decision was never in much doubt despite the pontificating by all and sundry, and so the artist died in serious poverty leaving a number of excellent paintings, a deeply saddened widow and a plethora of debts. The chap who took his place in the drug trial was never seen on stage again either, although his improved health and prosperity were reported to us. The final scene, with Ridgeon attending the first posthumous exhibition of Dubedat’s work, attempted to resolve the play with a confrontation between the remarried widow and Ridgeon, but the arguments were so woolly-headed that they didn’t work for me. Never mind, the cast had built up such a supply of good will during the rest of the play that I didn’t mind the ending, and at least the final scene was short.

The costumes and sets were absolutely fantastic, as befits the National’s workshops. The opening scene was set in Ridgeon’s study, which had as much dark wood and leather as one could wish for, as well as a drinks tray and a wayward housekeeper (Maggie McCarthy) who bossed her employer around as if she were his nanny. His knighthood had just been announced, and various members of the medical profession called by to congratulate him, from fellow knights Sir Patrick Cullen and Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington through some GPs he’d known during training, to the lowest of the low – a surgeon! Mr Cutler Walpole (Robert Portal) was the flashiest of the group, and utterly convinced that everybody who was suffering anything was suffering from blood poisoning and needed their something-or-other sac removed (a spurious anatomical spare part). Mind you, he was doing very well out of it, and we found it very funny as well.

The assembled doctors gave us an insight into the various medical attitudes of the day, and quite a few laughs too. David Calder was great fun as Sir Patrick, an Irish doctor who may well have represented Shaw’s own views in the play. He poked fun at everyone while still having some sensible things to say, and with his advanced years he was able to comment on how the medical fashions came round on a regular basis. Sir Ralph was played by Malcolm Sinclair and this was an excellent performance. A Royal physician, he professed the same cure for everything and by some lucky fluke hadn’t killed off anyone important. His use of Ridgeon’s formula on one of the Princes had coincided with the Prince recovering, which may have led to Ridgeon’s knighthood. His pomposity was leavened by his knowledge of how the establishment worked, and Malcolm Sinclair played him with great authority and impeccable comic timing.

The successful and rich GP was represented by Dr Leo Schutzmacher, played by Paul Herzberg. With his foreign background and slight accent, it was no surprise to find out later that he was Jewish, although I wasn’t aware of that in the first act. He’d settled in a manufacturing town somewhere north of London and made so much money that he could now retire. The other GP, Blenkinsop, was played by Derek Hutchinson, and he represented those doctors who treated ordinary folk, clerks and shop assistants and the like. He couldn’t earn much because his patients couldn’t afford the expensive cures; nor could he, which is why he was suffering from tuberculosis himself as we learned in act two.

Any of these doctors would have put you off going to the medical profession for life. Their silly debates and insistence on unproven remedies, or using proven remedies for every possible ailment, were humorous if worrying. The issue of who to treat – worthy Blenkinsop or unworthy but talented Dubedat – was clouded by their differing approaches to treatment; ultimately it all came down to Ridgeon’s decision, and he chose the ‘worthier’ man. Being fond of art and beautiful things made the decision harder for him, as did his attraction to the artist’s wife, but the choice was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.

It was good to catch this Shaw play at last – we’d missed earlier productions, and although some of his plays are done regularly (e.g. Pygmalion, Arms And The Man) there can be long gaps between productions of the others (and then three come along at once – if only!). Personally I would prefer to see more of Shaw and less of Chekov, but that’s just me; as I get older the ‘idea’ plays come to be more interesting.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Last Of The Haussmans – August 2012


By Stephen Beresford

Directed  by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th August 2012

Yet another DFCD (dysfunctional family confrontation drama), the twist this time being a reassessment of the 1960s Flower Power generation in today’s world. It had a marvellously detailed set, was a good first play by this writer, had excellent performances, and for those who like this sort of thing it was a great production. There were delicious sparkles of humour through most of the play, but the relatively turgid family ‘discussions’ left me cold.

The start was very promising. We were quickly introduced to Nicky and Libby, a brother and sister with assorted problems, including a drug habit, a rich and varied homosexual past (and present) and a stroppy teenage daughter. Libby’s daughter, Summer, was a representative of the daughter-as-bitch camp, slagging off her Mum at every opportunity and generally behaving badly most of the time. Judy, Summer’s gran and Nicky and Libby’s mother, was recovering from cancer surgery, and this seemed to be the trigger which had brought Nicky back to visit after many years’ absence. The story unfolded in fits and starts, with some lovely humour, mainly from Nicky; the energy dropped when his character was absent for a while. The play ended with a funeral for the last of the Haussmans, and a rather confused new start for Nicky and Libby after the family home had been sold.

The set used the large revolve to move the building round. It was a large Art Deco period house which had been sadly neglected, and with Judy’s hippy past there were plenty of Eastern trimmings to brighten the place up. I spotted, amongst the jumble, wind chimes, a dream catcher and a Tibetan cloth (judging by the shape); the only thing missing was the pungent aroma of incense (probably just as well). Around the front was the garden area, and there were two strange curved wooden pergola affairs on each side of the stage. They were used for exits and entrances to the garden, and were lavishly draped with colourful bunting, but apart from that I have no idea what they were meant to be. They may also have been responsible for our occasional problems hearing the dialogue; with nothing to bounce back from, some of the lines were probably crystal clear backstage but sounded muffled to us. The scenes were mainly set outside, though one was in the music room and another in the kitchen.

The two other characters we saw included a doctor, whose services to Judy included reminiscing about the 60s long into the night, drinking and singing songs. He was also having an affair with Libby which lasted until his wife found out. The other was Daniel, a young man whose talent as a swimmer was being nurtured with regular practice in Judy’s swimming pool. This seemed a bit unbelievable; if she couldn’t keep the house tidy, the swimming pool was likely to be a major health hazard. Anyway, he was a fit young athlete and the eye candy for many of us in the audience, as well as for Nicky.

Rory Kinnear was excellent as Nicky, and well matched by Helen McCrory as Libby, although hers were the lines I had most difficulty hearing. Julie Walters was clearly having a great time playing the aging rebel Judy, and Matthew Marsh was perfect as the randy doctor. The young actors were also very good. Isabella Laughland as Summer conveyed her character’s hostility and occasional vulnerability very well, while Taron Egerton showed us a Daniel who matured a lot during the period of the play, partly due to his experiences at the house and with the family.

The only reason for my lack of enthusiasm about this play is that we’ve seen so many of these family confrontations before and it takes something special in the writing or performances to engage my interest nowadays. I’m also beginning to wonder if the elaborate set didn’t dwarf the play too much; perhaps a studio setting, emphasising the relationships and allowing the location to fade into the background, would have helped the production more. It’s certainly the set that I remember most from this performance, which is not a healthy sign.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Travelling Light – February 2012


By Nicholas Wright

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st February 2012

This was the story of a young Jewish man in an Eastern European shtetl, Motl Mendl, being inspired by a motion picture camera to make movies, and his subsequent career in Hollywood – sort of Fiddler On The Roof meets Tales From Hollywood. It’s set around the end of the nineteenth century and in 1936, with the 1936 character being the narrator for the earlier parts, having changed his name to Maurice Montgomery.

The set was craftily designed to double as the inside of a house in the shtetl and a film set of the inside of a house in a shtetl. Curving round the back was a white curtain which acted as a screen for the movie clips, some of which were also shown on the wall of the room facing us. Below the screen were the rooftops of the other houses in the town, screened by the room itself. A long back wall had a door on the left to the aunt’s small room, a main door in the middle and an alcove on the right which seemed to be the developing room; it could be screened off with a curtain. On the far right wall, above the single bed, were photographs taken by Motl’s father, the village photographer. To the left were the table and chairs, sideboard, etc. In the middle stood a Lumière Brothers Cinematograph, facing the wall; it had two gas tanks at the back for the limelight, and a large wooden stand.

Motl’s father had died some time before, and Motl had only just returned to the shtetl, having missed the funeral. He was hopefully employed as a journalist – hopefully because they hadn’t actually published any of his stories yet – and he wanted to sort out his father’s things and get back to the city as soon as possible. With his aunt telling him the express train didn’t always stop at their station (a fib, as we discovered later) and a local family very keen to have a photograph of their son before he went away to the army, Motl ends up taking not just some photographs of the young man and his parents, but also a short moving picture.

The father was so taken with this that he came every day for a week to watch this movie, projected onto the wall of the room. I don’t remember when they started using the back screen as well to show these movies on a larger scale; it could have been from the start, and they also used the bigger screen when there was no action on stage or the projector wasn’t in use. Anyway, Motl has decided he wants to make movies now, but has no money. Jacob, the father, has been so moved by being able to see his son on film that he recognises a money-making opportunity; if he enjoyed seeing this movie, perhaps everyone will enjoy seeing themselves or loved ones on screen. After a lengthy explanation of his background and his rise to prosperity and respect within the shtetl, Jacob agreed to pay for enough film to capture life in their town. His accountant, Itzak, who was also his son-in-law, had arrived by this time, and the author takes a poke at the involvement of money-men in film-making a couple of times, especially when Itzak’s penny-pinching leads to an embarrassing shortfall in the fiddler department (more on that story later).

Jacob also sent along one of his servants, Anna, to help Motl with his film-making. She’s a very attractive young woman and clever too. It took Motl some time to fall for her – he thought it was just about getting her to star in one of his movies – but they were soon spending time together on the mattress. She also had the idea to edit the bits of film from around the shtetl to tell a story, and even though the locals could all tell that it wasn’t the rabbi buying a coat in the tailor’s shop, they still enjoyed the movie, although the initial focus group, set up by Jacob to make sure the movie is as good as it can be, was full of picky complaints – nothing changes.

From this beginning, they moved on to the make another movie which told the sad story of a woman, spurned by her father and sent out into the world with nothing, etc., etc. Jacob’s daughter thought that she would play the lead role, but both Jacob and Motl wanted Anna to do it. The daughter wasn’t too happy with this, and played one of the sulkiest maids you’ve ever seen, but the combination of producer and director proved too much for her. Mind you, the director had a lot of trouble with the producer’s interference during filming – like I said, nothing changes.

With the filming done, Motl left the shtetl and took the train to the city. Anna had told him she was pregnant, but pretended it might not be his, and his desire to make more and better movies made it a relatively easy decision to leave. During the 1936 sections we learned that he was making a movie based on these early experiences, and after he’d explained a lot of this story to a young actor who would be playing him in the movie, we got to hear the rest of the story from the young man himself; it followed the plot of the staged movie remarkably closely.

They finished the piece with Maurice stepping back into the past and the early characters coming into the room for Shabbos. As the aunt placed her hand over her eyes, the lights went down to end the play – a slightly downbeat ending, but OK.

I did wonder if they could have introduced the framing device earlier, perhaps even from the beginning; we didn’t meet the young man and learn of the intended movie until the start of the second half. But this is only a minor point; the real fun was in the rich detail of the shtetl experience and the beginnings of movie-making, with the reminder of the strong Jewish influence on the early days of Hollywood. Although this play covered some familiar territory, I did still learn some things, and the characters and the humour made for an entertaining afternoon. The performances were all excellent, and the ability of the National to get a good size cast on the stage really helps with the group scenes.

And as for the shortfall in the fiddler department? For the scene where Anna‘s character finds out about her long-lost daughter, Motl had wanted a fiddler to play background music to help her produce the emotional responses he needed for the scene – this was silent movies, remember. To cut costs, Itzak hired a youngster as the regular fiddler was going to charge too much. Everyone was disconcerted when a young boy turned up to do the job. Seeing their attitude, he made some scratchy sounds when they first asked him to play, but he was just winding them up. When it came to the real thing, he put bow to strings and played beautifully; it was a very moving piece. A voiceover by the narrator told us who he probably was – Jascha Heifetz!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Habit Of Art – May 2010


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th May 2010

At last we made it! We had to miss an earlier performance due to ill health or travel problems or somesuch, so I was very glad to get here today. This is probably the best thing we’ve seen this year so far, almost 10/10, but unfortunately it not only included some of Auden’s poetry (not a fan) but the format is a play within a play, where the fictional author’s work is meant to have some less good bits in it, such as talking furniture, talking facial creases, etc. These were fine up to a point, and did give us some very good laughs, but they do have the drawback of being not very good, and however much I put them in quotation marks they still tend to lower the standard. There were a few other areas that became unnecessarily dull as well, but overall the experience was very great fun.

The set was excellent. I’ve never been in a rehearsal room at the National, but the design looked very similar to the workshops which we saw on a backstage tour. Left and back walls were white brick, apart from an area of black panels in the back wall, while the right wall was wooden strips. The fictional play’s set was mocked up in the middle – small raked area with desk, two chairs, piano behind, door to the right of that, kitchen area to the left (bits were labelled ‘fridge’ and cooker’), bed raised up behind piano, and an upper level on the left with a grand piano and chair – destined for the Cottesloe, then. Around this ‘set’ there were several chairs front left, and a string of desks to the right, including a keyboard. The ‘real’ sink was against the left wall, behind the entrance door. Even the ceiling lights were authentic. And there were all sorts of books and other junk cluttering up the ‘set’.

The performance started early, with the ASM arriving first to set things up. The audience pretty much ignored this, so I was glad when they finally twigged that we were under way and shut up in time for us to hear the dialogue. The second half was much the same, with cast members arriving back in the rehearsal room in dribs and drabs, and chatting away to each other. The audience were a bit more alert second time around, thank goodness.

The play within the play concerned a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten after a gap of some thirty years in which they discussed, amongst other things, Britten’s next project, an opera based on Death In Venice, the Thomas Mann novel. It also covered Auden’s complete lack of hygiene, his preference for sucking off rent boys to a very strict schedule, and various other musings on the lives of these and other famous men. We got the inevitable ‘more fucking elves’ comment about Tolkien’s work, and of course the music was largely Britten’s, although Show Me The Way To Go Home also featured.

The contextual play allowed for frequent interruptions to question the facts, the dialogue, the staging, etc., and meant that a good deal of extra information could be brought out without having to double-dramatise it. And there was all the fun of watching a ‘rehearsal’ in progress, with many wry observations on the way these things work, the way actors behave, the diplomacy skills required to keep it all on track (Frances de la Tour was excellent as the stage manager) and the way the National itself operates. For example, two of the actors couldn’t make the rehearsal because they were in the Chekov matinee, although one of them did turn up during the interval chit-chat on stage in full Russian peasant gear.

The performances were, as usual, excellent, with many lovely touches. Adrian Scarborough’s actor character, who played Carpenter, the biographer of both Auden and Britten, was deeply distressed to find out that his part was simply a dramatic device, and his attempt to bring out more of Carpenter’s background by dressing up and singing a song about the wind made for a great start to the second half. Alex Jennings’ character Henry contributed some interesting revelations about his time as a rent boy when he was studying at RADA, thinly disguised as the experiences of ‘a friend’, while Elliot Levey as the author gave Bennett a chance to poke fun at the writer’s lack of authority in the rehearsal room. All good fun, and worth the wait to see it.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

The Power Of Yes – October 2009


By David Hare

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 15th October 2009

We decided not to have high hopes for this play after seeing such a fantastic performance of Enron earlier in the year. Surely we couldn’t get two great plays on such closely related subjects in the same year? And we know from experience not to get our expectations up as that usually leads to disappointment.

Well, I’m delighted to report that we both thoroughly enjoyed this new work. David Hare seems to have developed the knack of being entertaining as well as informative and here he manages to get across a great deal of technical detail while giving us many opportunities to laugh at both the people who contributed to this sorry mess, and even the situation itself at times (note to self: never let bailiffs get inside the door, not even to go to the loo!).

The set was uncompromisingly sparse. The screen at the back showed what looked like a charcoal rubbing of wooden floorboards to start with, then all sorts of other images to illustrate the story. I felt particularly nostalgic when the building society names were up there – those were the days. There was another screen nearer the front which was raised and lowered as necessary, and which usually showed at least a portion of the fuller picture on the rear screen, as well as the ‘scene’ headings. There was a blackboard, some chairs and a table that made infrequent appearances but other than that, the stage was bare.

When Anthony Calf as the author walked on from the back of the stage, I was surprised to see how deep the acting space was; with so little furniture it was hard to judge distance. Mind you, they needed the room, as a cast of twenty spread itself out over the stage to give us a chorus-like introduction to the credit crunch. One character even called it a Greek tragedy.

After a short while, most of the cast trooped off and the author was left with a journalist from the Financial Times who was going to tell him the story of how the global financial systems collapsed. As she did, various characters came forward, introduced by a young man or woman, and told us, via the author, their part in the story or how they saw it unfold, and why they’re not to blame. Some of the characters preferred to be anonymous. There were occasional clips of the lower part of Alan Greenspan’s face saying something profound (now known to be untrue) and the characters covered a broad spectrum of interested parties from all walks of life, from the (ex) Chairman of the FSA through politicians, investment bankers, lawyers, economists and journalists to a chap who worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, helping ordinary folk to deal with their debts. A large number appeared to have been at Harvard, Goldman Sachs and/or the Financial Times.

The character who probably came out best in all of this was George Soros. The author interviewed him, and this was shown at the end of the play so that his views on rampant capitalism were the final impression we were left with. In response to some comments by Alan Greenspan when the two of them had lunch some time before, about the benefits of capitalism being worth the price that had to be paid, Soros pointed out that the people who reap the benefits are not the same people who pay the price. A sobering thought, but unlikely to be a popular one with bankers.

I won’t go through the whole sordid story again here – frankly I couldn’t, as it was one of those things I followed well enough at the time, but couldn’t remember past the curtain call. I did get several ideas very clearly from it. One is that the people involved in banking are so brimful of self confidence (or could that be arrogance?) that they genuinely didn’t believe they had done anything wrong. On the way to the train, I recognised a similarity with Coriolanus. We as a society set bankers and other money men the task of making the country rich, without regulating how they should do that, and with the strange belief that if some people are coining it in then everyone benefits (trickle down theory). In the same way, Coriolanus is unleashed to give Rome military success, but when it comes to the social responsibility aspect neither he nor the bankers give a toss. So we all end up paying for our collective mistakes and ignorance.

Other points included the lack of regulation, the weird delusion that we’d broken through the cycle of boom and bust to a ‘new economics’, and that underpinning all this was a lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, history. Maniacal greed was also exposed, as one of the journalists explained that her friends who now worked in the city weren’t satisfied with only half a million a year. I think she’s also the one who pointed out that many of these financial folk consider they have earned the money instead of the company, and equate good luck with their own genius. And all of this unprecedented growth was founded on cheap labour in China.

There was a hint from George Soros near the end that the old capitalist certainties are changing (already there are moves to have the oil price quoted in a basket of currencies, including the Chinese Yuan) and with so many of the Western economies racking up huge debts he may well be right (he often is). So perhaps the lessons will be learned eventually, just not today.

The performances were all superb, as was to be expected from such a talented cast, and I only mention Anthony Calf in particular because he was not only on stage for almost the entire one and three quarter hours, he also provided the reactions that most of us would have had if we’d investigated the subject; bewilderment, anger, confusion, etc. I also liked his little demonstration of the need for speed in delivering a story, something the writer clearly understands. At one point, a journalist makes a comparison between the self confidence of the bankers and Hare’s own self belief. It’s a fair point in some ways, but then David Hare is unlikely to have been paid an obscene or disproportionate amount of money for writing his play, the enjoyment of his work is a subjective experience, and the measure of his success is bums on seats. The bankers, on the other hand, appear to be reaping rewards out of proportion to their effort or results, and the measure of their success can be clearly identified (if you can make sense of the bank’s accounts, that is). However, the comparison still has some validity, and I like the fact that this play has given me plenty to think about.

And how did it compare to Enron? Well, it didn’t have the singing and dancing nor the ladies’ knickers, but it did get the information across in an equally enjoyable way, so at least that’s two good things to come out of the credit crunch.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Time And The Conways – May 2009


By J B Priestley

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th May 2009

As Steve was saying on the walk back to Waterloo, there are some dramatists you can adapt to your heart’s content, Shakespeare being the most obvious one, and others whose work is much more specific, and which doesn’t necessarily benefit from superfluous gimmickry or convoluted interpretations. Today’s offering was a case of the latter. Fortunately, despite the director ‘Goolding’ the lily with his usual filmic flourishes, the performance was enjoyable enough and the actors mostly did a fine job given the limitations of the production.

The opening sequence was one of those superfluous touches. The metal curtain opened to give us a viewing slit, and with a curtain drawn part way across we could only see a small section of the stage. One of the characters, Hazel, was carrying a suitcase full of clothes and apparently running across the stage (but actually staying on one spot) while some of the other characters moved past behind her, presumably as if they were standing still or just milling around. It wasn’t very effective from my angle, and the few lines were lost in all the hustle and bustle. Then she actually did run forward and off at the side, while the curtain was pulled back. This left us with a long narrow slit showing very little of the set, letterbox viewing gone mad. All I could see was the top of someone’s head, and nothing else for about a minute. Then the metal curtains opened fully and Hazel finally came bursting into the room with the suitcase. A long start, and not a particularly good one. Did the curtain not open when it was meant to? Was the delay intended for some meaningful reason? Or did the complicated opening delay the start because the stage crew had to clear stuff out of the way? I neither know nor care.

The first act unfolded pretty uneventfully, introducing us to the family, their situation (father dead, but family still well off and both sons home safe from the war) and the time period, just after WW1. (See, some writers do manage to tell us these things without too much trouble.) We also get to meet two friends of the family: Joan, a friend of Hazel’s with her beady eye fixed firmly on Robin, the younger son who’s just been demobbed and turns up towards the end of the act, and Gerald, the young lawyer who looks after the family’s legal affairs. Gerald has also brought along Earnest Beevers, an intense young man who would nowadays be called a stalker. He’s got it bad for Hazel, and puts up with the snobbish attitudes of most of the family in order to get to her. The only family member who’s nice to him is Carol, the youngest. There’s also Alan, the elder son who has seen action and is now working as a clerk for the local council, Madge, the eldest daughter who’s rather plain with a good mind and a passion for socialist ideals and reform, and Kay, the birthday girl, whose party we’re seeing. She wants to be a writer, though she hasn’t produced anything she’s happy with yet. And of course there’s Mrs Conway, family matriarch and temperamental diva, capable of great shows of loving and great cruelty, though we don’t see so much of that in this first act.

Everyone is having a wonderful time in that scatty upper middle class way – mercifully the charades are done off stage – and despite a few ominous comments, the tone is light-hearted and happy. With Mrs Conway singing for the guests as the final piece of entertainment (top of the bill, as usual) only Kay sits in the darkened drawing room, listening to the music and trying to get her thoughts and feelings down on paper. Suddenly she has one of her ‘turns’, and we get a freeze frame effect, with the actress, spotlit, on the central seat while the walls start to move and the room revolves, so that we see her from different angles. Then the lights go out. Visually, it’s quite a good effect, but it does have the disadvantage of disconnecting Kay from the older version in the next act. The ‘traditional’ version simply has her going over to the window and being in that same position at the start of the second act. This time, I don’t remember where she was in the room, so the placement clearly wasn’t as evocative for me.

The second act shows us the Conways twenty years on. Another war is looming and the slump after the last war has wiped out most of the value of the family’s assets, those which Mrs Conway hasn’t squandered on the profligate Robin, now unhappily married to Joan and avoiding her and their two kids as much as he can. Well, they’d get in the way of his drinking and complaining about how bad his luck has been. His mother looks as though she’s had a mild stroke, although it may just be bitterness that makes her mouth twist that way when she talks, and she appears to have a greater fondness for port than before.

Hazel has married Earnest, who is doing very well for himself and their family, but he doesn’t intend to help the Conways out with his hard earned cash. Hazel is clearly able to afford whatever she wants, is completely miserable and terrified of Earnest, although I didn’t see much reason for it in this production. Alan is still a clerk with the local council, and despite the contempt some of others have for him, he’s really the most successful and certainly the happiest of the Conways. Kay is a journalist for some paper which sends her out to get stories on film stars. She hasn’t written anything serious for years, and judging by this portrayal, she’s a dipso lesbian with a drug habit and a job in a very camp woman’s prison. Hattie Morahan’s facial grimaces made it hard to engage with this central character. She seemed like a caricature, and long before the comment was made on stage I wondered if the director was deliberately trying to turn this act into another family charade. If so, it didn’t work for me at all.

Hazel was also a bit over the top in this scene I felt, while Ma Conway can get away with anything, such is her character. The others were fine, but the overall effect was spoiled by the lack of balance and I found some bits dragging during this and the final act which never usually happens with a Priestley play, at least not for me.

The drawing room was appropriately empty-looking for this scene in the future. The signs of vanishing fortune were writ large on the bare walls and in the lack of furniture compared with Act 1. At the end of the second act, Kay is standing at the mirror, and again the walls move, but this time the mirror swings in at an angle, and we get a series of similar mirrors, suitably reduced in size, with other actresses dressed like Kay standing at them. There’s a nonsensical movement sequence that ripples down the line, and then the mantelpiece lights are switched off one by one to end the act – another puzzling and unnecessary interpolation.

The final act opens with Kay back in the freeze frame position. They’d cleverly arranged some papers so they could cascade onto the floor and stay there, in mid flight. When the action started up again, she pushed the papers all the way onto the floor, which looked quite effective. Next we get to see some of the events referred to in the second act, and some of the ways that some members of the family bring about the unhappiness of the future. We see how casually Mrs Conway ruins Madge’s best chance at a loving relationship, how Robin woos and wins Joan (not that she was resisting) and we get to see Carol again, the one missing from the second act and described by Earnest as the best of the lot. Kay starts up the kind of grimacing that explains a lot about her future facial expressions, as echoes of the future come back to her. She wants Alan to tell her the lines from William Blake that had given her some comfort in the future, but he doesn’t know them yet. Mrs Conway makes some comfortable and glorious predictions about the family members, accompanied by some more pointless choreographed movements from the girls, and then Kay slips through the curtains at the back with Alan following. Mrs Conway heads off to sing, and then things get really weird.

The lights go down, the curtain comes across, and then goes back again to reveal a smaller proscenium arch with curtains. It seems to represent the Conways’ bow window and curtains. Carol steps through and does a little dance to accompany her mother’s singing, then she goes off and the curtains are drawn back to show us a gauze screen which is used to project images of Alan and Kay, as well as having the actors themselves there, moving in such as way as to interact with their other selves. Lines from the play were repeated at this stage, presumably another attempt to be ‘meaningful’. However it was all pretty pointless and meaningless and was really turning me off, but finally it ended, the lights went out, and the whole performance came to an ignominious end. I held my applause till the actors were actually present on stage, as I didn’t feel the production deserved any reward. The cast had worked hard though, so I wanted to acknowledge them for that, and several performances were as good as they could be in the circumstances. Adrian Scarborough as Earnest and Faye Castelow as Carol were the best for me.

Looking back this evening, I find that writing these notes has reminded me how much was missing from this production. I wasn’t as emotionally engaged, the tweaks and twiddles didn’t add to my enjoyment or understanding and mostly took away from it, and I feel cheated somehow, as if the ‘real’ play is still waiting to come out. I’m glad the National have decided to embrace the dramatic tradition of this country once again, but I hope we get some better productions of these classic plays from them in the future.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Burnt By The Sun – April 2009


By Peter Flannery from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st April 2009

This was a very interesting play and an excellent production. I’ve seen a number of pieces which comment on Stalin’s impact on the Soviet Union but this play gives a different perspective, bridging the gap between Chekov’s soon-to-be-ousted upper classes and the thuggish period of the mass cleansings and executions.

The set for this play was a beautifully detailed veranda and adjacent rooms in a dacha, with tall tree trunks round the sides and back. The dacha rotates to change the scene, and at one point two sets of wooden railings are brought round to screen the house while the action takes place on the front of the stage. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the costumes, but they all seemed fine to me.

The dacha is occupied (I don’t know if ‘owned’ is the right word for these times) by General Kotov, a hero of the Revolution who has married a member of the old upper classes and chosen to live in her family’s dacha. He’s generous enough to allow the remaining members of her family to stay there too, so we have Maroussia’s mother and grandmother, her uncle and the grandmother’s friend all living there as well as Kotov, his wife Maroussia and their daughter Nadia. The only servant we see is Mokhova, whom the older generation tease mercilessly when they’re not reminiscing about the old days and complaining at what they have to put with now. Mind you, it’s the uncle, Vsevolod, who notices the coming storm when he reads a story in the paper about how “confessions are the source of all justice”. Nobody wants to debate the issue with him and he’s constantly distracted by lecherous thoughts, so if it wasn’t for our knowledge of what’s to come I can see that many people at the time would have accepted such an announcement without comment.

A former friend of the family, Mitia, arrives back after many years away. It’s clear there was a relationship between him and Maroussia and at first I thought he’d come back to get her to run off with him. He’s been spending a lot of time abroad, playing the piano and singing to make ends meet apparently, but now he’s back and he and Kotov are immediately at odds. The battle is quite subtle at first, then escalates through storytelling and Mitia taking Maroussia away for private conversations. Finally it emerges that Mitia is in fact an agent of the NKVD come to arrest Kotov and garner evidence to be used at his trial (though why they need evidence when he’s going to confess….). The rest of the family have gone to the zoo, a promised treat for Nadia, and after roughing Kotov up a bit (he resisted arrest – honestly, he did) and shooting a lorry driver who came along looking for Mokhova, they drag Kotov off leaving Mitia behind on the veranda. He uses Kotov’s own pistol to play a losing game of Russian roulette with himself, with the lights going out as the shot is fired.

It’s a powerful ending and a pretty powerful play. Light at the start, it darkens down through all the revelations until the final act of desperation snuffs it out completely. The characters are well drawn and well acted, and there’s a lot of humour as well as emotion. I so wanted Mokhova to get together with the driver, who came to the house originally for directions as he was lost. They seemed so well suited, but he turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time and death was inevitable. The old biddies with their twittering, grumbling and opera singing were very reminiscent of Chekovian characters. It was surprising to see how well they’d survived the initial stages of the Revolution, but then there would have been lots of them and only so much time in the day for executions.

Mitia is an interesting contrast to the other, raincoat clad NKVD men. He’s bright, articulate and full of stories and song, which gives him excellent camouflage in spying out the Russian exiles who might be a danger to Stalin. He clearly feels the loss of everything he cared about when he first left the area, initially to fight in the Revolution and then sent away to spy by none other than Kotov. It was Mitia’s protest that he had to get back to see Maroussia that led Kotov to investigate this woman, fall in love with and marry her, so Mitia’s grudge is easy to understand. His despair at what he has to do to keep his bosses happy is evident, and his final act completely at one with his personality and situation. Rory Kinnear’s performance was superb in this role, showing off his many talents to perfection.

Holding all of this together is Ciaran Hinds’ Kotov. A man of the people, he’s proud of having achieved so much in his life entirely on merit. He’s hard but not completely ruthless; believing that the victory has been won, he’s inclined to relax and enjoy life a little. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the danger he’s in immediately although he’s certainly suspicious of Mitia’s arrival. But then, he knows the sort of work Mitia’s been doing, so no wonder. He comes across as a loving father and a generally decent man, though prepared to take tough decisions when he has to. It’s sad to see him brought down by Stalin’s paranoia but that’s how it was. Anyone who was popular or successful was a threat and had to go.

There was a fair bit of humour during the play but I’ll just mention two bits here. The first happened in the opening scene when Kotov is roused by neighbours complaining that there are tanks in the fields of wheat. Kotov uses his rank to get them removed and the change in attitude of the two young soldiers is very entertaining. At first they’re throwing their weight around, thinking they’re dealing with peasants (or comrade peasants) but when they realise who they’re talking to, they turn into simpering schoolgirls and are only too happy to put him through to their commander. In relating Kotov’s instructions, one soldier translates “piss off” as “go away”, which also got a good laugh.

The second occasion was the singing near the end when the family is heading off to the zoo. The NKVD men have arrived, and to provide a cover story Mitia introduces them as his colleagues. The family assume that means they’re musicians with the Moscow Philharmonic, and from the expressions on their faces these blokes wouldn’t know one end of a bassoon from another. Still, they end up joining in a chorus or two of Evening Bells, and one chap even sounds quite good. It’s a nice bit of humour before the unpleasant ending.

Although I’ve mentioned a few of the actors by name, all the performances were excellent. I liked the set very much, although the veranda rail was in the way for a lot of the breakfast scene, cutting off the actors’ mouths, which was a bit irritating. It was well worth seeing, and I hope to catch it again sometime.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

The Pitmen Painters – February 2009


By Lee Hall, inspired by a book by William Feaver

Directed by Max Roberts

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th February 2009

This was just as good as last time. Although there wasn’t any surprise value because we’d seen it before (May 2008), being more familiar with the characters and accents meant we got even more out of the humour, especially George’s fondness for the rule book. I love the way Oliver takes his time to reply to George when he turns up at the hut in the opening few minutes. Oliver comes in, George says “Oliver”, and Oliver walks over to the side, picks up a chair, takes it to the middle of the floor, opens it up, sits down, crosses his legs, and then pauses for a few seconds before responding “George”. Lovely stuff.

This time round, the interval happened after the group explains their experiences in London. In my previous notes, I remembered it as being after the life model turns up, but that’s quite early for a break, so perhaps I misremembered. I didn’t spot any big changes to the text, and I’ll have to check up on a couple of places where I thought the dialogue had been altered, but overall it was the same play we’d seen and loved so much last year, with the same cast and equally good performances. I found I was more aware of the artists and their development than the interaction with Robert Lyon this time round, and less keen on Helen Sutherland, though just as aware of the sexual underpinning of her passion for art and artists. The final scene didn’t feel so out of place today, what with renationalisation of the banks and possibly BT seeming increasingly possible; how things change, and how they stay the same!

This is definitely a classic play, and I hope we’ll get to see it again sometime.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at