Yes, Prime Minister – May 2010

8/10

By Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn

Directed by Jonathan Lynn

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th May 2010

Opening night! First performance! And they did it very well. Our overall impression was that the piece is pretty good but a little uneven, and tonight’s experience should help them make the necessary adjustments.

The set made good use of the vast plains of the main stage. Representing the PM’s study at Chequers, there were doors to the left and right of centre, one being integrated into the bookcases along the right hand wall. A sofa and chair were left and centre, the PM’s desk was in front of the bookcases, and there was a shaped window seat to our right, fitting nicely in with the design of the edge of the stage, which showed the outside of the building – path, flowers, etc. Between the doors at the back was a large window, with autumnally-coloured trees seen through it. The storm effects included real wet stuff, fortunately confined to the exterior locations.

The plot concerned a possible oil deal with a fictitious -stan, which thanks to the topsy-turvy world of international finance, would mean Europe getting the dosh now, so they could afford to buy the oil later. Or something like that. Basically, it was a multi-trillion bribe to lock European states into paying a higher price for this state’s oil in the future. With the PM absolutely gagging for it (the deal, that is), the only snag seems to be a request from the -stani foreign minister for a pre-defiled schoolgirl, under our age of consent, for a spot of post-dinner ravishing. The moral, political and practical dilemmas this request poses are thoroughly explored through the second half, and include a prayer session, the aforementioned storm, an illegal immigrant working as a cook at Chequers, a live interview on the BBC, and the Royal helicopter. Nuff said.

Of course, that’s only the bare bones of the evening’s entertainment, with topical references skittering across the stage so fast I probably missed a few. And the perennial problems of being the man in charge got the usual airing as well. One of my favourite bits was when the PM has a despairing rant about all the woes that afflict him (Job had it easy), culminating in the final straw, global warming, whereupon his head sank onto the back of a chair. Mind you, there were plenty of other lines that got a great response from the audience. After the uncertainties of recent weeks, I suspect we were all ready to let off steam, and this was the perfect opportunity. This is the area that’s most likely to be updated, as events at Westminster and Downing Street unfold, while Sir Humphrey’s elaborate monologues, explaining in ‘simple’ terms the complexities of some subtle point of the art of government, will no doubt be untouched. Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey did an excellent job delivering these speeches, and if the people behind us had been quieter I would have enjoyed them even more. Jonathan Slinger played Bernard with the right degree of innocence, classical education, and moral indignation, while Emily Joyce did her best with the part of Special Policy Advisor, but I felt her lines didn’t get as many laughs as the others. Sam Dastor did a very nice job as the -stani ambassador – from him we learned that Sir Humphrey’s nickname at Oxford was ‘Bubbles’ – and William Chubb and Tim Wallers were fine as the BBC Director General and a mock Jeremy Paxman.

Teamwork notwithstanding, the honours for tonight, by the narrowest of majorities, must go to David Haig as the PM, Jim Hacker. He covered the whole range of emotions, posturing like a strong leader one minute, and then collapsing into wimp mode the next. I especially liked his response to Sir Humphrey telling him he’s been courageous – ‘have I?’ he says, sinking onto the window seat full of worry and concern.

The issue of under-age prostitution was stronger stuff than we’re used to from this team, and I felt a bit uncomfortable for a while, but the writing focused on the responses of the various characters, and the humour of that soon got me involved again. A few people did leave during the interval, but on the whole, we’re looking forward to seeing this again in a few weeks.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Confession – May 2007

8/10

By: Roger Crane

Directed by: David Jones

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd May 2007

This is a world premiere of the first produced play by a New York lawyer in his fifties. It has seventeen speaking parts, only one double, and has taken ten years to be staged. It was an amazing debut, a fine play, and also proves the Chichester Festival Theatre management are still willing to take risks.

We attended a pre-show talk by the author, which was very informative, and entertaining, although I didn’t manage to hear everything. I’m hoping to eventually download their podcast to re-hear it all, but for now I’ll just mention that it was very funny – he has a good sense of humour – and didn’t give anything away about the plot, apart from suggesting that there’s a twist. Apparently someone had been coming on in a different costume at the end, and people weren’t recognising who he was, so now he comes on in the same costume, and people get it, whatever “it” is. Roger also stressed that he would be available at the end of the performance tonight, and positively encouraged us to come up and tell him how it went. We did so, and he kindly signed our copy of the play text. Wonderful. Now for the play itself.

The play tells the story of the year of the three Popes, as seen by insiders in the Vatican. It’s a story of the power struggle within the Catholic hierarchy (not that different from power struggles anywhere, it must be said), but heightened by the possibility that a Pope has been bumped off to make way for a more malleable or even reactionary pontiff, one who will unravel the gains made by the liberal reformers of recent years. We see the developments through the eyes of Cardinal Benelli, played by David Suchet, who is making his final confession to a monk/priest, and insists on going over the sad events of 1978. He appears to be confessing to killing the emissary of God, but experienced theatregoers such as ourselves take this sort of thing with a large chunk of salt, and don’t assume it’s literally true. (One of these days it will – won’t we be surprised!)

Benelli himself rejects being elected as Pope once Paul dies, and instead engineers the election of Luciani, who takes the name John Paul I. He is a saintly man, more Christ-like than anyone else in the play, or even in the entire Vatican, for that matter. His ideas shock the Curia, the Vatican establishment, and he even plans to replace many of those in positions of power. It is as these plans are being made that the Pope is found dead, in bed, with a heart attack being declared to be the cause of death. Benelli insists on an investigation, but it soon becomes clear that it’s just a superficial attempt to allay public suspicions. No autopsy is done, and there’s a clear possibility that the Pope may have been denied his medicine at a crucial time. In any case, murder cannot be proved, and cannot be ruled out.

That’s one of the joys of this play. It’s good at presenting the facts as far as they are known, with some reasonably inferred glosses, but leaves us entirely to make up our own minds. However, it’s clear Cardinal Benelli’s sense of guilt relates to his manoeuvring Luciani into the Papacy, to whose pressures he then succumbed. We then have the delight of seeing the various political groupings within the Cardinals locking horns over John Paul’s successor, and eventually compromising on the first non-Italian Pope for 500 years, John Paul II. Benelli has lost his chance to be Pope.

There is so much material in this play that it takes a while to absorb a lot of the details. The characters of the various Cardinals are beautifully sketched in – each has their own agenda, and to an extent they overlap, but I felt that dissension and rivalry could burst out anywhere, at any time, over the slightest thing. There was no serious commitment to serving God in any of them, other than Luciani. The Catholic religion was merely the product the Church was selling that year; given time, they might have moved into many other areas, as Marcinkus was doing with the Vatican Bank. Roger Crane mentioned that one senior Church Official, who read his play, considered that he was trying to bring down the Catholic Church. I certainly didn’t get that impression from this production, but in any case, he couldn’t do nearly as good a job as the people in charge of it are doing.

Now for the details. The set was all cages – right angles of iron bars which could be moved around easily to create offices, open spaces, etc. They made the Vatican seem like a prison – heavily fortified, an effect referred to in the text when someone mentions the Pope as being a prisoner in his own apartments. The desks and chairs, etc, were fairly plain, and costumes were naturally based on actual designs – I’m still not sure why some cardinals wear red, and some wear black trimmed with red – perhaps my resident Catholic will enlighten me. (Speaking of which, he gave me a very useful run down of the three Popes storyline before the off, which came in very handy as I didn’t have time to read the program notes beforehand.) [P.S. no, he doesn’t know why there are different colour schemes either.]

Performances. David Suchet was excellent, as always. He oozed power and intelligence, reminding me a bit of the Robert Maxwell portrayal by Michael Pennington (not that weird, we just haven’t seen David Suchet’s version yet (on TV)). Maxwell was the sort of person who might happily have made someone into a Pope, too. Michael Jayston as the confessor had a more difficult job, as he mainly seemed to be devil’s advocate (sorry) to Benelli within the structure of the play, to get him to expand on his views. His character develops in unexpected ways, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him on stage again.

Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) was superb. His simplicity and strength made the piece work. Roger Crane made some reference to the question of how the Christian churches would react if Christ were to return, and that he feels his play addresses that issue. It certainly does, as Luciani is as close to Christ as you’re likely to get in the upper strata of any major church nowadays. I felt he was a lamb to the slaughter fairly early on, though it was good to see him standing up to the lions and doing a bit of roaring himself. Of the other cardinals, Baggio and Felici made the most impression, although that’s not to diminish my appreciation of the others. Baggio (Bruce Purchase) was the most blunt, and the only one to openly defy the new Pope. Felici (Charles Kay) was more suave, a real politician, who had seen much over the years and learned how to finesse each opportunity to his, or rather the Church’s, greatest advantage.

One final mention for Sister Vincenza (Maroussia Frank), a stroppy nun who really knows how to serve, but doesn’t see any need to soften the blow.

Finally, I must just emphasise how entertaining this was. Often funny, it was also tense, gripping and invariably powerful. The insights into human nature were accurate, and the drama built to a very satisfactory conclusion, in the sense that we knew when it was finished, and felt complete, rather than we thought it was a happy outcome for all concerned. Life’s like that.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and would happily see this play again. Hopefully other managements will be courageous enough to stage it, now they know it’s a hit.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Of Hearts – February 2007

8/10

By: Alistair Beaton

Directed by: Ramin Gray asnd Max Stafford Clark

Company: Out Of Joint

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th February 2007

This was the world premiere of this play, as it turned out, and we were also treated to a post-show discussion, as directors and writer were present to see how it went. Personally, I thought it was very good, needing a bit of work here and there, but very entertaining, and speaking out on some issues that are being skirted round at the moment, but which affect everyone of us.

General context – the King is dying, his heirs are his two sons. The elder (Richard) is in love with a Muslim girl (Nasreen), and plans to marry her while still becoming King. The younger (Arthur) is a layabout, keen on a dissolute lifestyle of drink, drugs, etc., and not at all keen on becoming King if his brother abdicates. The Prime Minister (Richard) is plotting the early demise of the King (he’s on life support, so it’s just switching off the machine), until he discovers Richard’s plans. Then he switches to trying to keep the King alive as long as possible to stop Richard marrying a Muslim. Constitutional crisis. The Leader of the Opposition (Stephen) is present also – this is “above party politics” – and all sorts of shenanigans unfold. Nasreen seems to be keen on power – I hoped she’d reject Richard if he didn’t become King, but no, love overcame all. There’s also a rambling Archbishop of Canterbury (Marcus), plodding head of security (Holbrook), King’s private secretary (Sir Terence Pitch), ballsy female spin doctor (Annie), and gay assistant (Toby), giving us a good mix of views on a tricky subject, and lots of options for humour. I especially liked Toby blackmailing the Leader of the Opposition with a video clip showing him enjoying a sexual act, and Annie slapping Arthur for using the word “cunt”. Overall, the language wasn’t as strong as The Thick Of It, but it was fairly meaty at times, all well within context.

Post-show – didn’t hear all of it. The intro, where we get to see that Richard is involved with a Muslim lady, will be dropped tomorrow, to see how it goes – is it better for the audience to know what’s coming, or to be surprised? We were a very warm audience apparently, and they learned a lot from our responses. Jade Goody joke was allowed tonight, would only stay in if it was well received – expect it to stay. Comments on the amount of swearing – audience seemed split on whether it was too much or about right.

Definitely one to see again, partly to find out how it’s bedded down, and partly to re-enjoy.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me