The Sunshine Boys – June 2012

8/10

By Neil Simon

Directed by Thea Sharrock

Venue: Savoy Theatre

Date: Saturday 23rd June 2012

This was great fun. Neil Simon is a master craftsman, and this play is one of his best, judging by this production. The casting worked really well, and it looked like they were having nearly as much fun as we were. The audience were on their feet at the end – we joined in too – so the enjoyment was universal.

The play is set in the 1970s; Adam Levy not only gave a very good performance as Ben Silverman, the nephew and agent of Willie Clark, he also modelled a selection of 1970s suits for the ambitious young businessman, and looked very good in them as well. The play was mainly set in Willie’s hotel suite; he was a long-term resident, and had been demoted from a five room suite to three, but it still looked pretty spacious to me. To the right was the kitchen ‘alcove’, screened off with a curtain. To the left were the big windows, with exits for the bedroom and bathroom, and centre back was the main door, with the usual array of security locks (this is New York after all). The furniture was shabby, and reflected the life of an old man who didn’t look after himself too well. The only other set was the studio where the duo were attempting to record their famous doctor/taxman sketch. Easily contained within the walls of the suite, there were glittery curtains all round, and a doctor’s consulting room in the middle, with a door on the left, table and chairs in the middle, a flipchart to the right, a skeleton to the left, and not much else.

The story concerns two old comedians who used to have a top comedy act, Clark (Danny DeVito) and Lewis (Richard Griffiths). After Lewis’s abrupt retirement eleven or twelve years ago, the pair haven’t spoken to each other, but now a TV company wants to record their famous sketch as part of a documentary charting the history of comedy performance. As Willie’s agent, Ben was keen to get them back together again, and despite Willie’s complaints and hostility, he does finally agree to a rehearsal. The relationship between the two men then became the central theme of the play, and along with the laughs I could see glimpses of the heartache as well. It was clear that Willie had been grieving for the loss of his career all those years ago, when he didn’t feel like retiring, while Al Lewis had simply had enough.

The humour was rich and varied; most of it was in the dialogue, which these two stars delivered with impeccable timing. There was also a lot of visual stuff too, like the TV on a trolley which was moved too far so the plug came out of the socket. When Willie phoned the concierge to complain, he realised what he’d done but didn’t admit it, claiming he would fix it himself. Then there was the bit during the rehearsal scene where they were putting the furniture into place to represent the set. They kept changing each other’s work, until finally Willie leaves Al to do it himself. The resolution to this argument was very funny, involving the slight movement of a chair.

I also enjoyed the performance of Johnnie Fiori as the nurse in the final scene, when Willie was recuperating from his heart attack. She was feisty and funny, and although I couldn’t hear all of her lines, I got the gist. The whole production worked really well, and I’m glad we managed to squeeze this one in.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cause Célèbre – June 2011

6/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date Wednesday 1st June 2011

I must make it clear from the outset that this production is considerably better than my experience rating above suggests. We had to rebook for this one due to ill-health the week of our original tickets, so for once we were back in row R, level with the start of the circle, and much further back than our usual E or F. As a result, I had difficulty hearing much of the dialogue, and a wonky headset didn’t improve matters in the second half. Also, I’d forgotten how much visual detail is lost from that distance, and I find it hard to describe the performances at all, it was such a blur. Even so, I got the gist of the story, or rather stories, as there were two central female characters juxtaposed in this piece; one, Alma Rattenbury, a real-life figure who stood trial for the murder of her husband, and the other, Edith Davenport, a fictitious woman who in the course of the play divorces her husband, loses her son, and, possibly the hardest one of all, loses her black and white judgemental certainty about life. The trial sections were easier to hear, as barristers need a powerful delivery and good diction, and as the bulk of these scenes were in the second half I found I enjoyed myself a lot more after the interval. I still missed some of the humour; the rest of audience was having a better time than me, judging by the amount of laughter I heard.

The set was quite complicated. It had to be, because the action moved around a lot, giving us flashbacks to the night of the murder as well as alternating between the courtroom and people’s homes. There were chairs and tables, a drinks cabinet, a gramophone, stairs and walls, and a judge’s bench for the court scenes. An upper level was used for a scene in the prison, but mostly the different locations were indicated by lighting different parts of the stage. This did allow for quick changes of scene, but I found the overall effect a bit stark, with high, open spaces dwarfing the small figures.

I wasn’t entirely sure about the structure of the play itself. It seemed bitty in the beginning, starting with the swearing in of Edith, then jumping between the two women’s lives to show the events prior to the murder. The contrast between the two leads didn’t really get going until Edith’s surprise assertion that she couldn’t be on this particular jury because she was prejudiced against Alma, and so wouldn’t be able to give her a fair trial – perhaps if this was done right at the start, it might create greater tension throughout the play. As it is, that part happens at the start of the second half, and left me a little confused. Was that bit before the swearing in? Or had the swearing in already happened, and now Edith was trying to get out of her civic duty? Anyway, the trial scenes in the second half gave the play a better structure, and were more entertaining on the whole. We did get flashbacks to the events of the murder, which were acted out in front with the court behind in darkness, and these made it very clear that Alma hadn’t been involved in the murder at all, but that her behaviour in general had influenced the police to view her as guilty. With the jury advised by the judge, and defence counsel for Alma, that they were only trying her for murder, and not for loose living, there was only one verdict they could return. As we didn’t know the result beforehand, I was still tense as we waited for the decision, so it was a relief that she got off. Even so, it didn’t surprise me that she took her own life shortly afterwards – she didn’t seem the most stable of people to begin with, and despite her feelings for her son, she evidently felt suicide was the only way out.

The performances were at least fine, and several were much better than that. Nicholas Jones was perfect as Alma’s defence counsel, and with his stronger delivery I caught almost all of his funny lines; he had plenty of them as well. I liked Lucy Robinson as Stella Morrison, Edith’s sister. She had a more relaxed view of some things than Edith, who was totally uptight, although Stella was an out-and-out snob. The worst thing about the Rattenbury murder for her was that Alma was involved with a servant! She placed a bet on the outcome of the trial, £600 at 3/1 on Alma being found guilty, based on the disparaging way Edith refers to Alma after day one of the trial. No wonder she was unhappy when Alma’s acquitted.

Niamh Cusack and Anne-Marie Duff came across well as the contrasting leads, even though I didn’t hear all of their lines, and I’m hoping that I get to see and hear this play properly sometime in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Equus – February 2008

6/10

By: Peter Shaffer

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th February 2008

It’s strange that I found the previous performance of Equus in London more enjoyable than this one, yet I prefer this performance space – I felt it suited this production more – and the performances were as good, if not better. I think this is an example of the surprise factor. I had a greater sense of wonder and awe the first time round as I hadn’t seen the horse designs before. This time, they were still good, but not such a lift to my system. Some of the magic had gone. Ah well.

Simon Callow played the psychiatrist this time, and Alfie Allen the young man. Simon Callow’s portrayal was much more uptight, and I got a greater sense of someone wrestling with their own demons, never mind someone else’s. He seemed on the verge of a breakdown, and although I didn’t entirely relate to the imagery of the horse’s head, I got the sense of something powerful which he had to come to terms with. Alfie Allen’s performance was very good, and this time I felt that even if the sex had happened in a less stressful place, he might not have got over his obsession. With the more open performance space, I had a greater sense of all the contributing factors to his fixation.

Apart from the cast changes, the only other change I noticed was that when Alan went to blind the horses, the lights went out together, instead of one by one, as they did in the West End. A very enjoyable reprise for a very good production.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cloud Nine – December 2007

8/10

By: Caryl Churchill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 8th December 2007

We’d seen this play back in the 80s at Chichester. Neither of us could remember much about it apart from Tom Hollander dressed as a little girl. We weren’t sure how good this afternoon’s performance was going to be, and our low expectations gave us ample scope to enjoy this production, which seemed much funnier and more interesting than we expected.

The play was originally developed during a workshop period, with Caryl Churchill going off and writing the piece after the actors and director had explored a specific topic, in this case sexual politics. For the first half, we see a family out in Africa in Victorian times, supporting Queen and country, and seething with repressed and expressed passions of all kinds. With mixed gender roles – the son is played by a woman, the mother by a man – there’s a lively sense of fun which reminded Steve of farce. The set is simple – a round raked disc (is this a theme? – Thea Sharrock did the same thing with The Emperor Jones) with a square flat platform in the middle, a doorway with a couple of windows, and a bench. Sophie Stanton, who played two characters in this half, had a lot of quick changes to do, but otherwise the characters stayed the same throughout.

In the second half, we see the family group twenty-five years on, but in terms of the outside world, we’re now in 1979, in London. This strange warping of time works remarkably well. Victorian attitudes lingered on for longer than necessary anyway, and this juxtaposition shows up the changes more clearly than a more realistic timescale would have. It’s also good fun, as when the Victorian characters reappear from time to time – more quick changes, but for everyone this time. There’s no real plot, just the characters discovering what works for them and what doesn’t.

For example, Betty the mother is now a prim, uptight sexually repressed woman who worries for England and gradually finds her feet, and her clitoris, by the end of the play. Her daughter Vicky, played rather well by a doll in the first half, now emerges as a woman in her own right, but so far up the collective gender political backside that we sometimes need subtitles to understand her. Her determination to find herself as a woman makes it virtually impossible for her man, Martin, to know where he stands. I found myself wondering if these scenes were funnier now that we’ve moved on a bit from those situations, or if this is just a much funnier production.

The son, Edward, now played by a man instead of a girl, has accepted his homosexuality, and is content to be a wife to some man. Unfortunately, his partner of choice is rampantly unfaithful, so Martin ends up living with Vicky and her lesbian lover, Lin – a more interesting ménage-a-trois than most. The next generation consist of Cathy, Lin’s daughter, whom we see, and Tommy, Martin and Vicky’s son, whom we don’t. Cathy is played by James Fleet, who also played the father in the first half, all rugged colonial with a moustache and a hard-on for another woman. The moustache stayed on for part two, and although it didn’t entirely go with the pink frock, after a while we got used to it. I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t become the fashion, though.

The play ends with Betty of old coming on to be embraced by Betty of now. It wasn’t a bad ending – I just felt we hadn’t concentrated on Betty enough to make it a completely fitting ending. However, this is probably a compliment to the fine ensemble work that kept the whole piece entertaining all the way through.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Emperor Jones – October 2007

6/10

By: Eugene O’Neill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th October 2007

This was a pretty unusual O’Neill play, one we may not see again for a long time. It was experimental for its time, which makes it seem quite modern. The play looks at racism, oppression, and the effect this sort of abuse has on the human psyche. We see the Emperor at the point where his subjects have deserted him, and are about to boot him out. He flees, and his journey through a forest takes him, and us, through a montage of experiences, some from his own past, some even earlier. We see his escape from a chain gang after killing a guard, a slave auction, and what I think must have been part of a journey across the Atlantic on a slave ship. As all these ghosts appear, he fires off his bullets, until only the silver one is left, the one he’s keeping for himself. Finally, the madness drives him to kill himself, and the natives of his former realm achieve their goal without appearing to have done anything.

The play is basically a one-man piece, and demands a great deal from the lead actor. There are a few other speaking parts, and a dancing role, but Brutus Jones dominates from early on. Fortunately, Patterson Joseph is well up to the challenge, and gives an excellent performance as the swaggerer brought low by his own fears and fantasies. He’s a charming rogue, and it’s easy to see how he could have hoodwinked the natives on his island, but his lies catch up with him, and he can’t handle being alone in the forest. The other parts mainly serve to pad out his story, as with the white trader who helped him after he escaped from the chain gang.

The set was fantastic, and was another good example of how to use the vast Olivier stage. A central disc was surrounded by a crescent slope. The back wall of the central part had steps leading up to a platform with a gaudy throne, and not much else, apart from a carpet and a couple of doorways. After an initial scene where the white trader meets the last woman to run away from the emperor, there’s a long conversation between the trader and Brutus Jones, during which we learn all we need to know of his past. He’s already laid plans to escape once the natives rumble him, only he didn’t think it would be so soon. Still, he’s confident, and sets off for the forest sure that he’ll make it to a waiting ship.

For the forest scenes, the back walls are lifted away, and another disc, ragged this time, descends to form a sloping roof to the action. It’s a patchwork of corrugated iron, interwoven with wood and other materials, with strategic slits which allow the moonlight to shine through. Along with the lighting, it gave the whole stage an eerie feel. And in the background was the constant beat of the drums, enough to drive anyone mad.

For this part, Patterson Joseph had to be fit, as he spent a lot of it running around the place. I spotted the black men secretively creeping onto the stage a good while before they clambered onto the disc and started to form the chain gang – this all added to the spookiness. The final arrival of the natives looking for him gave us some lively dancing, and then the expected end – there was no way Emperor Jones was getting out of this alive.

While it was interesting to see this style of a play from this period, I wouldn’t say it was a complete success. The performances were great, especially the lead, of course, but that was all there really was to it. The points about slavery and abuse leading to more abuse were well made, but without any real context to give the play greater substance. On the whole, I left feeling glad I’d seen the play, and the performances, but not entirely satisfied with the afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Equus – April 2007

8/10

By: Peter Shaffer

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Gielgud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th April 2007

I was keen to see this play, as I hadn’t seen it before, and it’s often talked about as being really influential. Of course, the prospect of male nudity didn’t put me off at all.

The set was impressive. Designed by John Napier, who designed the original production at the Old Vic, it was very bare, but with some lovely touches, mainly the horses’ heads. These were formed from steel wire, making a head-shaped basket, with leather straps between some of the wires. Underneath was a cap for fitting the masks on to the actors’ heads. They were beautifully made, and hung round the walls of the set at the start. The centre was a large plinth, all black, with four black blocks set on it – these could be put on any side and moved around easily to create furniture as required. There were also six stable doors evenly spaced round the back and sides of the stage – these only became apparent later.

As well as the main house being packed, there were a couple of rows of seats up behind the stage, also full. On the whole, the audience were fine, despite having a younger average age than we usually see in a midweek matinee. I did have to ask one man to be quiet, as he seemed to think it was OK to carry on a conversation with the person next to him throughout the performance! There was extra loud applause at the end – some of it may have been down to the Harry Potter effect, but mostly it was well earned.

The story is relatively simple, though quite challenging. We gradually learn why a young man has blinded six horses at the stable where he worked. He’s developed a weird sexual attachment to horses, based on an early experience and fuelled by his mother’s insistent religiosity. When he nearly loses his cherry in the stable barn, he’s driven to this extreme act by his fear of what his horse-god has seen. I couldn’t help feeling that if the young lady (a questionable description, in this case) had only chosen somewhere else for his first night of passion, he might have turned out quite reasonably – her choice just happened to be the worst one possible for him.

I liked all the performances, although there wasn’t much for some of the minor characters to do. Richard Griffiths creates a tremendous sense of trustworthiness, and Daniel Radcliffe managed to get across his character’s strangeness very well. His mother and father were also good, especially Jonathan Cullen as the puritanical socialist who gets caught out visiting a porn cinema. The “horses” were also excellent, and the blinding scene, where torches are used for the horses’ eyes and extinguished as they’re gouged out, was both disturbing and beautiful.

It seems a worthy revival of an interesting play, and I was glad to have seen it. Although there had been some rewriting to bring the dialogue up-to-date, the overall feel of the piece was very modern anyway.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me