Matilda – December 2010

5/10

By: Book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Directed by: Matthew Warchus

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 13th December 2010

Not our cup of tea, but it was an excellent production, with very good to excellent performances. I preferred the adult bits – I found it hard to make out what the children were singing or saying most of the time, so I tended to lose interest when they were on. I didn’t know the story, and I’m not a fan of Roald Dahl’s work anyway, but I was glad to see so many others enjoying themselves. A lot of youngsters stood up at the end to applaud, which was great for the cast.

I also liked the fact that real children were cast in this production. It’s usually adults playing young, which is also fun, but I think this allowed the kids in the audience to feel more involved. I was surprised to see the way the young actors (and some of the older ones) were allowed to throw themselves onto the swings and float out over the audience. Where was health and safety when this was being set up? Not that I disapprove – it made it much more alive and exciting –  but in previous productions the actors have been padlocked to anything that might lift their feet off the ground by even a few inches! As I say, I was surprised to see them get away with all this risk taking – long may it continue.

The set was good, with its constant emphasis on books, books, and books. All sorts of contraptions were brought on and off without disturbing the flow, which helped a lot. The costumes were just perfect, although Rudolfo’s was perhaps less revealing than I (and I suspect many others) would have liked.

The performances of the real youngsters were very good. I particularly liked Lavender – she had good comic timing – and hope she has a long career ahead of her.  Matilda tonight was Kerry Ingram, and she was fine, though the problem with real children on stage is that they lack the range of expressions to convey emotions clearly. I managed to fill in the blanks well enough, though.

Bertie Carvel is one of our favourites, and it’s fair to say we haven’t seen him play the same character twice. Miss Trunchbull was certainly a mile away from anything we’ve ever seen him in before, although we know he does both musicals and comedy very well. His physical comedy was superb, and although Dahl’s style of villains isn’t to my taste, Bertie played this one to perfection. I even heard one woman say to her child as she left for the interval, “OK, then, man or woman?”. I think we know who she was talking about!

Mrs Wormwood was very good, and her song, Shout, was a great example of the barbed wit that was aimed more at the older audience members. Style over substance was her mantra, and don’t we just know all about that today! The contrast between the way the children were treated by their doting parents (little angels) and the way the outside world was going to lay into them (maggots) was spot on, as was the way the parents fussed over their little darlings, leading the teacher to smoke a fag on the steps by us, making faces at the things the parents said. Mrs Warchus (hire one, get the second half price?) was also a very beguiling Miss Honey, the nice one, and her voice worked beautifully with this music.

Overall, it wasn’t something I’d choose to see again, but it’s the last production we’re guaranteed to see in the Courtyard, and it wasn’t too much of an ordeal.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Table Manners – November 2008

8/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th November 2008

This is the middle play in the trilogy, in the sense that the overall action begins in the garden, the next earliest scene is in the dining room, while the sitting room kicks off last. It’s slightly darker in tone than the sitting room; this is where we get to see each character at their worst, and also where we get the revelations about each woman’s relationship with her man which make sense of Norman’s conquests. We do also get to hear the men’s side of things, too, and we can see for ourselves that Sarah and Ruth are no picnic, but as they’re the ones Norman is targeting, I reckon it’s natural to have a bit more sympathy for them. He certainly does.

He also gets a punch on the jaw during dinner, courtesy of man-mouse Tom, who finally stands up for Annie only to find that Norman was actually insulting his own wife Ruth. Tom’s apologetic “Oh, that’s rather different” got a huge laugh, while the punch itself got a smattering of applause.

The parts were better balanced this time, as Ruth turns up during the second scene, and I love the way Ayckbourn keeps giving us twist after twist. We were in the same seats as before, and the view was still pretty good, though I was nearly blinded by one of the spotlights which came on for several minutes while one of the characters was centre front, if there can be such a thing with theatre in the round. Fortunately it wasn’t on for long, but it was a real nuisance while it was.

The performances were all good again, and if I single out Amanda Root for special praise it’s only because her character, Sarah, has so much more to do in this play, and she handled the twists and turns, the gentle gradients and whiplash-inducing switchbacks with impeccable mastery. Even seeing her from the back, there were some wonderful expressions on her face! She went from cheerful and bubbly (or irritating, as her husband might call it), to worried, to censorious, to nervous, to hysterical, to unhappy, to hopeful but wary, to determined, to cheerful again, all in the space of two and a half hours and with a few other ports of call along the way. Wonderful.

The set was much simpler this time. Still the big jammy dodger effect, but the room itself had only a small storage unit for cutlery, etc., a fireplace, a low stool, and the long dining table with only four chairs, which was never going to be big enough to sit those people round it without open warfare. The entrance from the house was far left from where we sat, the door to garden was to our right. And it’s the garden scenes we’re looking forward to next.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Living Together – October 2008

8/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st October 2008

I’ve been very aware of the changes to the RSC’s theatres in Stratford, and I’m looking forward to seeing their new main house when it opens, but although I must have read that the Old Vic was being transformed for these Ayckbourn plays, I didn’t register just how major the change would be. It’s what I’ve wanted to see in these old-fashioned London theatres for years, and now it’s happened, if only on a temporary basis. Jubilate!

As it happens, we were probably sitting in much the same place as we normally do, but this time we were only a few feet from the stage (and probably sitting on top of our heads). A big circular platform stood in the front of the auditorium, with seats on two levels behind it, where the stage used to be, and a few seats round the side. The bulk of the seats were in the usual place, but the stalls were lifted higher and raked right up to the circle balcony. We were in the second row, just to the right of the centre aisle, and on the same level as the front row, so other people’s heads were always going to be feature of this performance. The seats were mainly the old ones with new covers, so comfort hadn’t increased, although the leg room had definitely improved.

The set was intriguing. Above the platform hung another large circle, about 3 or 4 feet above it. On both sides was a model of the play’s setting – a country location, with a large old house in the middle, and lots of garden and countryside around it. At the start, this disc rose up to form a high ceiling, and the house in the middle was highlighted, so we could see where we were. The disc also had a clock projected onto it between scenes, to show the passage of time.

The living room was the only set required for this play. There was a fireplace just to our right with a large rug in front of it, a chair, table and telephone further round (anti-clockwise), a space for a doorway to the rest of the house, then the sofa and coffee table, then the door to the garden, then another table with the record player. All the furnishings were 1970s, which made several of them bang up to date, retro being so popular.

There are six characters whom we see over the three plays. Annie lives in the house, looking after her bitch-from-hell mother, and having a puttering sort of relationship with Tom, the local vet. Tom is a rather bland character, who makes magnolia paint look interesting; he’s taken solid and dependable to new lows. With all the pressure she’s under, Annie had arranged to go away secretly for the weekend with her brother-in-law Norman, who’s married to her sister Ruth. This weekend falls through, for reasons which become apparent in one of the other plays, and so Annie and Norman and Tom are all at the house over the weekend. As mother still needed to be taken care of, Annie’s brother Reg and his wife Sarah have also turned up, minus their kids, so it’s a family affair, especially when Ruth arrives following a drunken phone call from Norman.

Not only does Norman get drunk, he also indulges in his favourite pastime of seducing every available woman he can find, which this weekend means that both of his sisters-in-law and his wife are the targets for his charm. Thankfully, mother-in-law seems to be immune. He also gives advice to Tom about how to deal with Annie, and although it seems designed to break them up completely, it actually seems to work, and Annie ends up happier with their relationship than before, at least at the end of this play. Sarah, on the other hand, goes from being a neurotic control freak who can’t stand Norman, nor anyone else, it seems, to a more relaxed happy individual who’s thinking of taking a weekend break in Bournemouth. Her husband recognises the signs. I expect fireworks in the garden as they leave.

They were still in previews, and I did get a sense of some hesitation occasionally, but overall the performances were excellent. Stephen Mangan was a wonderfully shaggy Norman, not as repulsive as some I’ve seen, but certainly immature enough. His comic timing was well to the fore, as in the long pause before he produces the word “magnetic” to describe himself. Amelia Bullimore as his wife, Ruth, does a fine job. There’s less for her to do, of course, as her character doesn’t turn up till the second half, but I got a sense of her focus on her job, and the lack of time for Norman which may partly explain his behaviour. But she also allows herself to be seduced back into bed with him, although this time it’s the rug in front of the fire that they use.

Amanda Root was excellent as Sarah, with nostrils flaring and eyes wide with panic whenever there’s the slightest threat of someone or something edging out of her control. The change to the relaxed version of Sarah was good, and I liked the way Reg finally cottoned on when his wife started talking about taking a weekend break somewhere, on her own. Reg knew all about the abortive weekend with Annie, and wasn’t too stupid to realise what had happened. Paul Ritter played Reg very well, especially as he’s one of the ‘dull’ characters, completely obsessed with developing board games that no-one else understands. Especially Tom.

Tom was played by Ben Miles, and he got across all of Tom’s ….. aarhm ….. well, indecisiveness, I suppose. It was beautifully done. Jessica Hynes, as Annie, was more feisty than some I’ve seen, but still had that depressed air of someone who can’t seem to get away from the burden of looking after her mother. I realised this time that it’s partly her mother’s attitude to clothes and femininity that leads Annie to dress and act the way she does; she doesn’t want to turn into a slapper like her mother. Mind you, she does scrub up well in the second half.

I also got a strong impression of the family unit in this production. It can be complicated working out how all these characters are related at first, but this time I was clear from an early stage. When the three siblings were together, I felt they behaved like brother and sisters, although at that point the heads in front were getting in the way a lot. It’s always so tantalising to see one of these plays and then have to wait for the others, but we couldn’t manage an all-day session , so we’ll just have to be patient. If they’re all up to this standard, we’re in for a treat.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Speed-The-Plow – February 2008

10/10

By David Mamet

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th February 2008

Who knew this could be so much fun? Steve had some memories of seeing this play years ago; I couldn’t remember it at first, but vague recollections drifted in, especially during the second scene. Neither of us remembered it being so strong and so funny. Shows what you can do with two top class actors, who also have the benefit of years of experience of the movie business. I’m sure they will have drawn on that a lot during rehearsals.

The set was all curves. Two sandy coloured walls curved away to the rear of the stage, where a glass brick curved wall formed the back of the office. There was a sleek desk, fancy black chairs on wheels, which travelled about the office almost as much as the characters, a sofa, and stacks of papers. A ladder seemed incongruous at first, until we learned that the office was being redecorated.

For the second scene, in Gould’s house, another glass brick wall is slotted in front of the other one to create a drinks area. A large round sofa with lots of cushions is about the only other thing on stage, although there are lots of plants along the top of the walls – it’s a garden room. The third scene takes us back to the office, and in between times, a screen drops down with lines from the book being typed across it.

The story is simple. Charlie Fox (Kevin Spacey) brings a film deal to Bobby Gould (Jeff Goldblum). Both men think it’s a great prospect and will make them rich. There’s a delay in getting the studio boss to approve it, and naïve innocent Karen, Gould’s temporary secretary, puts the case for another film, a worthier one, based on the book Gould gave her to read. The book is about radiation, and how it’s killing us all, or helping us to evolve into higher beings, or something. Anyway, everyone dies, which means even I can see it’s never going to make it to the screen (unless some renowned European director did an art-house version which could become a cult classic – you know the sort of thing, seen by only ten people but quoted by everyone as a seminal influence). It’s a no-hoper, a “courtesy read”. But by dint of some passionate and persuasive arguments, and, of course, sex, the young woman wins the day. Or does she?

The first scene is almost entirely hyperactive. Gould starts the scene by trying to fend off Fox, thinking he’s just out to get a favour from his newly promoted friend, but once he actually listens to Fox’s proposal, he’s blown away. Fox has managed to get some fantastic actor to agree to “cross the street” to make some prison buddy movie with this studio, and the odds are it will a big hit. Both men will have their names above the titles as co-producers, and they take some time to fantasise about spending the shedloads of money they expect to earn. It’s an interesting relationship. Both men talk at the same time, and repeat themselves and each other constantly, but through all this camouflage I could see the relationship taking shape. They’ve known each other for many years, but with the pressures of the business no one can really commit to any sort of friendship, as they may have to drop someone in the shit at a moment’s notice. The cement in this bond is the money, and perhaps more importantly the kudos that will come from a major box office success. The secretary’s appearance is mainly to let the other two explain the rules of the movie making game to the uninitiated in the audience. She’s a symbolic rather than real character, with an innocence and naivety that would be ludicrous if not played well, but here Laura Michelle Kelly carries it off competently. The absurdity of a complete ingénue being employed as secretary to a senior movie executive was still there, but her sincerity carried the day.

The second scene in Gould’s house has a completely different quality. The manoeuvring is on a different level. The pace is much slower, and I got that Gould is expecting to get Karen into bed. He seems to treat it as a perk of the job, something he does by reflex, with no great interest in the woman herself, although he’s learned enough to come across all sincere and caring and willing to listen – that is what they call foreplay, isn’t it? She, on the other hand, seems to be sincerely keen on this book she’s been given to read. It struck a chord with her, and she appears to believe it’ll make a much more interesting film than the standard prison buddy affair Gould is lining up. She does the Anne Boleyn thing of saying no long enough to win her argument, then clinches the deal with sex. No wonder some people think women rule the world.

Next day, when the meeting with the studio boss is about to happen, Fox turns up again at Gould’s office to learn that he’s changed his mind. Fox freaks out, attacks Gould, who has to change his shirt afterwards, and does everything he can to make Gould see reason and take the buddy movie to the boss. It’s like watching a drowning man clutching at verbal straws, and it’s an amazing performance by Kevin Spacey. This is Fox’s one big chance at the big time, and he’s not going to let it escape. Eventually he manages to cast doubt on Karen’s integrity, and gives Gould cause to consider whether he’s doing the right thing or not. Finally, commercial sense wins the day, and Gould and Fox are back to being partners again. It was touch and go – these guys really took it to the wire – but normal service has been resumed.

Even as I’m typing this, I can remember how exhausting and exhilarating it was to watch. So much energy was coming off the stage that it was impossible to look away. Jeff Goldblum held the central character together brilliantly. He could be withholding, manic, childishly gleeful, sexually seductive and powerful, all in the space of an hour or so. I was very aware of how this guy’s mind was working, trying to avoid being used, trying to figure out how he could use others, checking to see what was in it for him, and all the time with an expression of regret that he wasn’t living a more profound life, that he was stuck amongst the muck and mire of the all-devouring commercial movie monster. It was an impressive performance, matched by Kevin Spacey as Fox, who took hyperactive to new levels. He threw himself about the stage, constantly moving and almost constantly talking. The dynamic between the two men was beautifully portrayed, and although Karen’s part isn’t as well written, Laura Michelle Kelly did well to keep up with these two. The audience were suitably appreciative, and I don’t expect to see a better production anytime soon. Nor one as good, probably.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I Am Shakespeare – September 2007

7/10

By: Mark Rylance (with adjustments by the rest of the cast)

Directed by: Mark Rylance and Matthew Warchus

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 4th September 2007

I found myself getting a bit negative in the early stages of this play. Mark Rylance has been working on Shakespeare’s plays for many years now, and became interested in the authorship question over those years. A professed agnostic himself, he believes it’s important for this question to be aired, and for the various pieces of evidence to be acknowledged and discussed, instead of covered up. Never having come across a serious argument against Will himself, I wasn’t perhaps as open-minded as I like to think at the start of this, but I grew into it. I’m still fine with Will being the man (I voted for him at the end), but I agree that studying a wider range of contemporaneous ideas can be useful in understanding the plays. However I still didn’t hear anything remotely convincing in any of the arguments put forward, so I can’t blame anyone who regards authorship questioners as Looney Tunes.

The Minerva theatre, lovely space that it is, had been taken over by Frank Charlton’s garage, a leaky den filled with Shakespearean authorship reference works. Frank hosts an internet chat show discussing the authorship question, with the only drawback being that nobody actually calls in to join the discussion. Apparently they did want the audience to ring in, but as no one told us not to switch off our mobiles, given how often we’ve been reminded to do that very thing, very few people actually realised we could phone in if we wanted, so no calls tonight. Other than the planned ones, that is.

Barry is Frank’s mate and musical director for the show, and to help his friend he pretends to be Derek Jacobi phoning in, but got the accent wrong by a few hundred miles. Everything’s going as badly as usual, until the bad weather and the internet combine to bring Shakespeare’s ghost into the garage. Dressed as a large tomato (I’m kidding – his red outfit was just a bit big, that’s all), he reads minds, writes a sonnet on the fly-leaf of Frank’s Complete Works, and heads off to the kitchen for some beer. To help us hear the arguments for a number of possible contenders we also get to meet Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, and Mary Sidney, so the garage became quite crowded. Eventually, after Barry and Will came back from the pub, they open up the garage door, and the audience becomes the neighbours who’ve also come back from the pub. The various characters came out and chatted with us, trying to muster support – Will was totally sozzled, and sitting on the stairs to our left, only popping up occasionally to make some witty comment. After that, we voted, and the alternatives got short shrift, with Will being the resounding victor – hooray!

There’s an argument between Barry and Frank, and as a result, the internet connection is shut off temporarily, and all the ghosts disappear off into the night. Frank thinks he’s got it all on tape, but he finds it didn’t record, and now he’s in despair. He wanted so badly to know who wrote Shakespeare’s works, and now he’s lost the people who could tell him ( they all refused to give him a direct answer earlier, always making suggestions, but never coming clean), and he has to face the possibility that Will did do it himself, after all. He’s in a bad way, and Barry’s left him (as did his wife some months earlier), but then he finds renewed hope in the concept of Shakespeare as being part of each one of us. The tape he was searching has the famous scene from Spartacus on it, and the play ends with Frank and Barry, and some brave folk in the audience, jumping up and saying “I am Shakespeare” in response to a question from a policeman (who’d been involved earlier when the Earl of Oxford got out of hand and who was persuaded by Mary Sidney that they were just rehearsing a play) about who was this Shakespeare fella? It was an uplifting ending, and a good way to unite everyone after the disagreements expressed earlier.

I did enjoy this play. There was plenty of humour – Will saying “God, I wish I’d kept better records” was a highlight – and the different characters came across very well, though I’m no expert. I did get the sense of how this question could take over people’s lives, and I’m determined not to get that deeply involved, as I don’t want to lose sight of the real objective – enjoying the plays themselves, regardless of who wrote them. But I still think that only an ordinary person from a relatively lowly background could have brought to life the ordinary folk in the plays, and given them such good parts.

It wasn’t the end of things, though, as we had a post-show to attend. I think this was about the most lively post-show discussion we’ve been to. There were plenty of comments and questions, and although we nearly got bogged down with one man’s opinions, on the whole it was a very interesting and wide-ranging chat. The cast had ended up doing a fair bit of research themselves, but without losing their sense of humour, so it was informative without being dogmatic. Some potential alternatives had been left out. Kit Marlowe, for example, had originally been envisaged as a dead body lying outside the garage, but eventually disappeared, as there was too much material to include everything. This was just a taster. The costumes were amazing (I managed to insult the Earl of Oxford by asking him why he was dressed like a bumble bee!) and had apparently cost thousands of pounds to make in splendid period detail. Barry’s costume cost £48.50. Money well spent, Barry.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me