Uncle Vanya – April 2012


By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th April 2012

Although the main performances had come on from our earlier visit, I found I didn’t get much more enjoyment out of the evening, as this version focused more on the period specifics rather than the wider issues. I was more aware of the Russian background to the piece and less about the people and their relevance to our times, although the environmental concerns were are topical as ever. Still, it’s a good production, and deserves to get a transfer if they can work out the details.

Yelena’s performance was probably the most changed from last time. I’d felt before that Lara Pulver wasn’t sufficiently glamorous in the role; not so tonight. She drifted languorously across the stage, fully justifying Vanya’s descriptions of her, and I couldn’t decide whether her sexual posturing was completely unconscious on her part, or whether she was doing some of it deliberately. Her relationship with Sonya was much clearer tonight – they were similar in age, and became almost sisters as they shared their feelings and girlish laughter. I was better able to ignore Dervla Kirwan’s good looks tonight, which made it easier to relate to Sonya’s situation.

The age differences came out strongly all round tonight, with the professor looking much the same age as his mother-in-law. Timothy West had his lines pat this time, which helped to make the third act in the drawing room even stronger. Maggie Steed had also developed her part as the mother-in-law, and her early exchanges with Vanya became a lot clearer as a result. Even when edging round the room to find a suitable location to sit and read her pamphlets, she was a strong presence on stage.

Alexander Hanson delivered his lines much more clearly as the doctor, and his character naturally seemed better defined as a result. Roger Allam presumably made some changes in his performance, but I didn’t notice any specifics; I felt he gave such a strong performance first time round that there wasn’t so much left to work on. Anthony O’Donnell and Maggie McCarthy were equally as good as Telegin and Marina respectively. Nothing else had changed in the staging that I could spot, and the scene changes were as long as before.

I still felt there wasn’t anything new in the play for me, but this time I did reckon the characters were connecting a bit with each other. The scene where the doctor explained his maps to Yelena worked particularly well; the air between them was alive with sexual attraction and frustration in about equal measure. There was a strong sense of order being restored at the end with the departure of the interlopers, even if Vanya and Sonya had a lot to grieve over. A good start to this year’s Festival season at Chichester.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – March 2012


By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 30th March 2012

Pretty impressive for the first preview performance. Overall I would say this is a balanced production, giving us plenty of humour along with an understanding of the characters.

The set was expansive (for the Minerva) and detailed. A wall of windows along the back of the stage had a couple of doors in it. Trees were visible through the windows, and there were several dotted around the stage as well, with one right up against the seats over on the left side. [From the post-show in April, one woman would happily have chopped it down!]  The first scene is set outside, so there was a large table with chairs, the samovar on a table over on the right at the back with a couple of chairs, and not much else.

The set changes took a long time, but the results were effective. The dining room had a carpet, the main table and chairs plus some others, and ceiling lamps were lowered as well. The drawing room was much the same, but had an extra carpet and a chaise longue, while Vanya’s room had a small table for the doctor’s stuff and lots of paperwork was laid out on the main table for Sonya and Vanya to work on. The costumes were all fine, and Yelena had a new outfit for every scene, as befitted her role of trophy wife.

There were a few problems tonight. I couldn’t always make out the doctor’s dialogue, although everyone else seemed pretty clear. I would have cast Sonya and Yelena the other way round, as Dervla Kirwan (Sonya) is much better looking than any other Sonya I’ve seen, and Lara Pulver didn’t radiate the glamour required for a Yelena – this may come with time. Timothy West stumbled a bit over his lines in the third act, a bit more than we can allow for an elderly character, but again this should improve with time.

During the second act, when Sonya interrupted Vanya, Astrov and Telegin singing their rowdy song I was reminded of Twelfth Night, and the similarity was very strong in this performance. Throughout the play I felt the characters were each living in their own universe, with little or no contact between them, and although this is a valid way to present these people, it doesn’t help me to engage with them as much as I’d like to. I found myself wondering if Chekov’s five plays are perhaps done too often, given that there isn’t the same scope to reinterpret them as there is with Shakespeare’s work, and he wrote over thirty plays! I certainly didn’t feel I was discovering anything new from tonight’s offering although it was enjoyable, and it will be interesting to see how the production comes on when we see it again in April.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Noises Off – February 2012


By Michael Frayn

Directed by Lindsay Posner

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st February 2012

I’m having a bit of difficulty rating this performance. We saw the first production of this play back in 1982 at the Savoy theatre, and it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on stage. I was laughing all the way home and into next week – I hurt from laughing. It would be unfair to expect this production to reach those heights especially as it didn’t have the advantage of surprise, but if I give it 9/10 it would be unfair. So I guess I’ll just have to rate the first production as 11/10, and leave it at that.

This cast were just wonderful in recreating these roles, and the script was just as funny as before. I particularly liked Robert Glenister as the director, Lloyd Dallas, who gets some of the funniest lines, but everyone was very good and there were no weak links. The set has to be the same, of course, this being farce. There’s no point going into the details of the story; I will just mention that reading the play text added to my enjoyment, as there are some very funny descriptions of the characters.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Alphabetical Order – May 2009


By Michael Frayn

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th May 2009

A is for Actors. This was a decent bunch.

B is for….  Bugger, I hate these alphabetical lists. (And I even had a ready-made entry for W. Witches. How often does that happen?)

This was our first visit to the Hampstead Theatre. I’d seen it under construction for a number of years when visiting a friend in the area, but it’s taken a long time for us to take that final step and actually come here to see a play. I like the look of the place, the ladies’ loos are fine, there’s lemon sorbet on offer at the interval, and the auditorium feels snug and intimate. We joined the Friends scheme on the spot. The only down side to today’s trip was that our seats were right at the back in the mezzanine, row M, and I felt I was missing a lot through being so far from the stage, but we’ll know better when we book next time. And we also managed to make our first visit on the very Saturday the Jubilee line was completely closed!

The play itself is obviously dated, although it took a while for me to suss out the period. Given that it’s set in a local newspaper cuttings library, there would have been plenty of scope for the dialogue to have firmed this up, but it wasn’t to be. Likewise, in the second half, I wasn’t aware of how much time had passed since the first. Not essential, I know, but I felt the overall vagueness as to time had leaked into the production as well, making it less funny than it could have been. I had the feeling that I’d come in part way through, as there was a good deal of laughter in the early stages for no reason I could see. Perhaps I missed a reaction, or just didn’t get the joke. I then found I was laughing at some things pretty much on my own, so the audience was definitely not as one in the early stages.

The set was also pretty dominant, which may have affected my experience. The characters seemed quite small and mostly static against a set of bright blue (verging on turquoise) filing cabinets and cupboards, there were a couple of desks, a lift door with wrap-around stairs, various office accoutrements (kettle, coat stand, etc.) and a mass of papers and folders everywhere. The mess was transformed during the interval to leave the place spick and span. Food could have been eaten off the floor, had one so wished, and assuming Lesley (the tidy one) wasn’t there to stop it. In trays were clearly marked, removed folders had to be signed for, all trace of comfortable nooks and crannies for errant journalists to lurk in had been scrupulously removed, and only Lucy’s desk, now separated, even distanced from Lesley’s and with a marvellous view of a wall, retained that air of total disarray so familiar from the first half. It didn’t stay that way for long.

The first half shows us Lesley’s first hour in her new job as assistant to Lucy, the newspaper’s librarian. Lucy’s the scatty sort, arriving late because she spent half an hour trying to decide whether to buy a fur coat in a charity shop for five pounds. She did buy it, and then spends several minutes in the office trying to decide if it’s really her. Being nice to everyone and finding information in the mess that constitutes her filing system are her two main talents, so it’s no surprise when she invites Arnold, one of the journalists, round for supper. He’s an older bloke whose wife has gone into hospital, leaving him without protection from Nora, the features editor and a predatory widow who’s desperate for company. There’s a garrulous messenger called Geoffrey, the leader writer John, who has been in an on-off relationship with Lucy, and Wally, another journalist or editor who livens the place up by constantly pretending to be about to run off with Lucy.

All of the existing group get on reasonably well, allowing for the usual amount of bitching behind each others’ backs. Lesley on the other hand is the compulsive type, who doesn’t find the current employees as charming or as entertaining as they find themselves. Without staging an actual coup she still manages to take over the library, hence the massive change in the interval. Both Steve and I noticed some signs on the filing cabinets and cupboards in the second half, but we weren’t close enough to read them (no doubt they were instructions from Lesley).

This time it’s John and Lesley who are having the relationship. She wants to buy a house, he’s showing all the usual signs of dithering. Lucy is still there, and nominally in charge, but she’s clearly finding it hard to keep going. Eventually, the news comes that the paper is to close, and with Lesley not in the room, the rest of the cast indulge in a frenzy of clippings tossing. In no time at all, the floor is awash with news cuttings and I could really relate to the fun they were all having.

Then Lesley arrives, and handles the situation remarkably well, I thought. She did point out that there was a meeting to try and keep the paper going by means of a staff buy out, so in fact the cuttings will be needed again. The play finishes with Lucy starting to get the bits of paper back into order while the others have headed off to the meeting, a slightly down beat ending.

I would say this isn’t Michael Frayn’s best work, possibly because of his background in journalism, working for the Manchester Guardian and then the Observer for a number of years. He may have liked and appreciated the characters and story, but that doesn’t necessarily translate well to the stage. I have no complaints about the acting – Penelope Beaumont was a late substitution for Annette Badland, and did a fine job – but the piece was just too slight to really engage me. Even allowing for the way we were affected by our distance from the stage, I wouldn’t consider this one worth seeing again.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Afterlife – August 2008


By Michael Frayn

Directed by Michael Blakemore

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 2nd August 2008

It was another hot afternoon, I was tired, and we were facing a long journey back to the house after a less enjoyable play than I’d hoped, so at the end of this performance I was ready to give it a 4/10 rating. But, after a good night’s sleep, and remembering the good bits of the play, which did have quite a few laughs after all, I’ve decided 6/10 is fair. But not by much.

The set was epic in scale. Marble steps the full width of the stage swept up from the front of the stage, which was lower than usual, to a brief platform, then continued upwards to the upper level, which at the start was empty. Massive arches were brought forward almost immediately, though, and these seemed to keep coming forever. They moved about a bit, but basically they were in place for most of the play, with windows, doors or just see-through as required. They certainly made the atmosphere very Germanic and imperial.

The play was about Max Reinhardt, a theatre impresario and also a Jew, who stages lavish spectaculars across the world, with casts of hundreds and even thousands, and that’s not counting the musicians! Despite attracting equally huge audiences, he appears to have been a drain on many purses, but still managed to live a life of opulence. He buys a palace in Salzburg, and through his enthusiasm and drive starts a festival there. He himself directs a production of Everyman, a morality play about God asking Death to pick someone, anyone (sounds like a card trick, this does), and bring him to God for judgement. Being a morality play, it’s written in rhyming couplets, and that’s how a lot of this play is written, too. In fact, it starts out in rhyming couplets, as Reinhardt and his friends attempt to persuade the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg to allow Reinhardt to stage the first performance of Everyman in the square in front of the cathedral. To do this, Reinhardt demonstrates the play himself – he knows all the parts – and so we get to see various chunks of the opening scenes.

By magic, the magic of theatre, we’re whisked away to the palace, where Reinhardt has the actors help him perform the banquet scene where Death comes to select Everyman. It seems for a bit as though Reinhardt himself is being chosen by a “real” Death, with his name being called, and no one else being able to hear it, but it finally resolves into part of the play, and they all have a good laugh about it. The Prince Archbishop agrees to the play being staged, and then we’re into rehearsals (Reinhardt takes obsessive-compulsive to new levels) and the performance (the Archbishop is in tears), and then we get to see Reinhardt’s home life, or rather his away-from-home life, as his secretary and mistress exchange comments on his progress across the planet (he sends lots of telegrams).

There’s one entertaining bit when Reinhardt is choreographing his servants to perform perfectly for a party, and they end up all doing a serving dance to music. He’s a total showman, and rather than enjoy his own party, he’s depressed that the guests don’t know how to behave properly. They’re just milling around – rank amateurs! He wants everything in his life to be theatrical, but reality keeps letting him down.

The dance ends the first half, and then we get more of his life and times from the start of the second half. The growth of the Nazi party is shown, and one chap in particular, Friedrich Muller, has taken a complete dislike to Reinhardt. Muller ends up running the local government once the Germans annexe Austria, and decides to live in Reinhardt’s recently re-appropriated palace which now belongs to the German people. He’s a nasty piece of work. Reinhardt manages to get away and spends time in America where he eventually dies, having spent all his money and being almost friendless.

The performances were all excellent, with Roger Allam being in really good form, and getting the maximum out of the lead role. David Burke as the Archbishop was looking frailer than I remember, but still carried his part off well, and I also liked Selina Griffiths as the long-suffering secretary Gusti Adler, and Peter Forbes as Rudolf Kommer, known as Katie, who managed Reinhardt’s financial affairs for many years, but eventually left him to go to New York ahead of the German invasion. He had a lot of the funny lines, as did Selina, and God knows we needed that, especially in the second half.

My main problem with this play was the lack of dramatic structure. Although it seemed to be leaning heavily on the morality play format, that’s not how it really worked out. Reinhardt fell on hard times, yes, but he wasn’t downhearted by them. He wasn’t taken off for judgement by Death – he simply died. Despite setting us up for some parallels between the Everyman story and Reinhardt’s, nothing came of it, at least not to me. Although Michael Frayn is a very intelligent man, he’s also an atheist, and so perhaps the choice of a religious morality play wasn’t the wisest one, as he doesn’t seem to have grasped what it’s about. We need to see the behind-the-scenes judgement or redemption, or there’s no point. It’s no good criticising the equivalent scenes in the Everyman he’s drawing on for inspiration, if he can’t do better himself (see program notes). And since he obviously doesn’t understand what these scenes are about, perhaps it would have been better to have left the whole concept alone.

Having said that, there are a number of good lines in the play, though it’s shorter on ideas than most of Frayn’s work. I liked the desperation of the poor actor who’s trying to get what Reinhardt wants for the opening lines “Draw near, good people all, I pray”. And the comments about Jews being more supportive of the Catholic church than the local Catholics were quite fun. And Reinhardt’s description at the start of how simple the staging of Everyman will be – complete with sound effects cut off at his command – that was good fun too. So there were a number of good bits like these throughout most of the play, but an awful lot of dreary bits as well. Overall, not a success, but not a complete waste of time either.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Spies – March 2008


By Michael Frayn, adapted by Daniel Jamieson

Directed by Nikki Sved

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 6th March 2008

This was a gentle romp through the memory banks of one elderly man, as he reviewed his childhood experiences during the war. He and his friend Keith began a game of watching Keith’s mother, under the belief that she was a German spy, and as the information comes in we get to see the reality behind the game.

The narrator, the older Stefan, takes us with him as he, and we, watch the young Stephen go through the wartime experiences he’s recalling. The set was interesting. At first I wasn’t sure that it would help us to relate to the story, as there seemed to be more emphasis on corrugated iron than on the privet hedges which were central to Stefan’s initial memories. However, as the story unfolded, the other locations that were needed were brilliantly brought to life by the constant folding and unfolding of panels and doors. Occasionally some furniture had to be brought on, such as the beds, but this was done pretty smoothly and didn’t hold things up much. This is only the second week of the tour, so I expect things will get even smoother as time goes on.

The performances were all excellent, especially Benjamin Warren as young Stephen, and Jordan Whyte as the spied upon Mrs Hayward. I didn’t hear all of the dialogue, and there was one unfortunate line which was lost when Benjamin Warren needed to cough, and the others seemed to move the dialogue along without getting clear what Stephen was trying to say. However, none of this spoiled it for me. The reflective nature of the story, and the humour and gentleness with which it was told, made for an engaging evening. I especially liked the way the two boys find out that Mrs Hayward has been marking some dates in her diary with a “secret” mark. These dates occur once a month, always around the new moon, and they jump to completely the wrong conclusion. They also mention some other dates which have an exclamation mark, about three of them, and one on the Haywards’ wedding anniversary. Very suspicious! And very funny. Stephen’s discovery of “the value of x” was also good fun.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Absurdia – August 2007


By: N F Simpson/Michael Frayn

Directed by: Douglas Hodge

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th August 2007

This was a combination of three plays, the first two by N F Simpson, and the third by Michael Frayn, each revelling in the absurdist style. Before the first play, a group of bowler-hatted suits brought on the furniture. The set was the wall of a room, with some shelves, a window, a door and a rectangular floor surrounded by gravel. There were net curtains at the window and flowery wallpaper on the wall. Above, the A-shape of the roof topped it all. Otherwise, the set was bare until the furniture arrived.

One of the suited gentlemen (a couple were actually ladies) was played by John Hodgkinson, one of the actors. I assume the others were stage crew. They brought on a small table with a radio on it, another small table with a telephone, a bigger table and a couple of chairs, and a wastepaper basket. Then, when everything was in order, John Hodgkinson announced “There will now be an interval.” Much laughter.

The first play, A Resounding Tinkle, was an edited version of the full text, though we didn’t know this at the time. It deals with the concerns of a couple who find the elephant they ordered has arrived while they were out, and it’s much too large this year. They wanted a smaller elephant, but as they weren’t in when it was delivered they couldn’t tell the delivery men to take it back. A neighbour has had a similar problem – her snake is too small. There’s a lot of discussion of what they’re going to do, and some repeated dialogue, which creates a lovely sense of unreality. They also have a visit from Uncle Ted, who’s moved on from an interest in motorbikes and gone for a sex change instead. Few people would have an Uncle Ted with such a perfect female body, yet they take it all in their stride. After a few refreshing lines of literature to help him perk up, Uncle Ted joins them in listening to the service on the radio – a wonderful spoof of a church service with nonsense lines and responses. Then Uncle Ted has to leave to get his train back, and they’re left with the elephant/snake problem. They agreed to swap with their neighbour, but end up with a matchbox-sized snake. The wife is also wrapping raffia round a wire-frame light shade in her spare moments.

I enjoyed this enormously. I love the absurdist way of taking normal conventions and structures, and putting in absurd content. The performances were excellent, and established recognisable character types, even if the details were well crazy.

After this part, and once the actors were clear of the stage, the back wall of the house was let down on wires, and we could see a similar back wall but decorated differently. The playlet this time was Gladly Otherwise, a short piece which dealt with the visit of an official-looking man (John Hodgkinson, still in bowler hat and suit) to check up on the couple’s knobs – door knobs, that is, plus any other knobs they might have. The husband sat in a corner reading the paper, mostly screened by the door, while the official spoke with the wife. It was over fairly quickly, and was an enjoyable snippet, with some good lines. Again, excellent performances.

For the final piece, The Crimson Hotel, the rest of the house came down, and we had a relatively bare set. The idea of this play was that a writer of French farces, knowing that taking his lover to a hotel will inevitably bring her husband to the same hotel and even to the same room, has taken his mistress-to-be to a completely deserted space – nothing around for miles – in order to seduce her. Of course, she’s perfectly willing to be seduced, but finds the great outdoors a bit disconcerting. As she’s the leading actress in his latest play, they play around with the emptiness, pretending to open doors and check in wardrobes, and find the door actually squeaks! When one of them turns the light out, they can’t see. Finally, as they settle onto the bed/rug, they glimpse a figure in the distance – her husband! After calculating they don’t have enough time for nooky and getting dressed again afterwards so they can pretend complete innocence before he gets there, they run about trying to find somewhere to hide. Eventually, they end up in the small case they brought the picnic in, while we hear the voices of the husband and his lover, another actress in the company.

This really was absurd, and excellently so. The intermingling of French farce and the absurdist style worked brilliantly together, and I loved the combination of logic and nonsense. The miming was good fun, and there was also lots of repetition, as they went through the lines of the play. Lots of echoes and layers. The performances were, yet again, excellent, and my only complaint was that it took less than two hours for the lot. Wonderful fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me