Volpone – July 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Ben Jonson, with script revisions by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd July 2015

This fantastic production was a joy to watch. There was so much going on that I couldn’t take it all in first time around, so I’m already looking forward to our next viewing which will be tomorrow’s understudy run. The performances were all excellent, and apart from a couple of the accents being a little harder to tune into than the others, the dialogue was crystal clear, including some modern additions.

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Kiss Me Kate – August 2012

9/10

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

Directed by Trevor Nunn

CFT and Old Vic co-production

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 9th August 2012

As predicted, this was a much improved performance. The whole production was much clearer, and seeing it from a central position gave us a much better view. The scene changes were quicker and the dances covered the action better, and although there were one or two very minor fluffs early on tonight the whole show went very smoothly. Because of that, and possibly because of our improved position, I could spot the deliberate errors this time. There was a running gag that one of the dancers couldn’t get her steps right, and they had several extra practice runs to help her. She fell over and knocked into the other dancers, but eventually she cracked it! And of course there are deliberate mistakes during the onstage musical when Lilli/Kate throws her tantrums, and these showed up better tonight as well.

Kate’s I Hate Men was even better than before, and all the songs and dances had come on. Bill/Lucentio was fully up to speed, and First and Second Man were much better. The dialogue was much sharper, and I caught a lot of the lines and lyrics that I’d missed first time round. It wasn’t so clear to me that the General wasn’t right for Lilli tonight – don’t know what’s changed there – but I found Lilli’s leave-taking and Fred’s reprise of So In Love very moving. We were a noisy audience tonight (including some surprising coughs) and were treated to one encore for Always True To You In My Fashion and two for Brush Up Your Shakespeare. And we applauded mightily at the end as well, with more sniffles on my part. Great fun.

Post-show:

There was lots of humour, especially from the General (Mark Heenehan). Hannah declared they were a very happy company, then Gremio ratted on her ‘voice resetting’ noises backstage. She retaliated with the way he frequently changed his lines, and it wasn’t long before the General was remarking that her earlier comment about it being a very happy company…..  Clive Rowe kept disagreeing with everyone else, and with Adam Garcia apparently dancing despite a slipped disc (an earlier performance) you might be forgiven for thinking that life backstage resembled the story of the musical. Fortunately the humour shone through, and they clearly are enjoying themselves very much. Mind you, the backstage action with all the very quick costume changes is a whole show in itself.

On the transfer to the Old Vic, the cast are looking forward to it. Most of them are going, and will get another two weeks to rehearse the changes. The choreographer hasn’t seen the Old Vic stage yet, so doesn’t know how things will change on the proscenium arch stage. At least the Festival Theatre stage gives them plenty of room for the dances. The costumes needed some changes to accommodate the dancing; apparently there was no coordination between the designer and the choreographer beforehand. The slanted set has given the cast some problems as well. There’s a mark on the stage to tell them where the centre is, but it’s hard to see and this may explain some of the difficulty we had on our first viewing.

After the general had finished wowing us with the casual mention of his chat with Kevin Spacey the other day (get her!), he was able to say that this is the first production from Chichester to transfer to the Old Vic since the days when the Old Vic was the National Theatre. (Hopefully they’ll know it by then, he added.)

Trevor Nunn’s experience with Shakespeare came in very handy; he gave the cast a day workshop on delivering Shakespearean dialogue, and apparently changed the script in some way to make it closer to the original play. He also chose to have Taming – The Musical done in Elizabethan costume, which hadn’t been done before (I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s what was said).

It’s hard for the cast when they have several days off while Heartbreak House is on; as we learned from the Singin’ In The Rain post-show, the muscles need regular use to keep the performance standard up. Didn’t manage to ask if they’ll be doing a cast recording – I do hope so.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kiss Me Kate – June 2012

Experience: 8/10

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

Directed by Trevor Nunn

CFT and Old Vic co-production

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 22nd June 2012

If there’s one thing that Chichester are doing really well at the moment, it’s musicals. This is another gem, and given that this was only the 4th performance and it’s likely to improve, get your tickets now because they’ll soon be sold out.

We didn’t have the best angle to watch from tonight. Our seats were right of centre, normally an excellent position, but the set was slanted across the stage to the left, so we felt we were sitting much further round to the side. God knows what the people actually sitting round that way saw! The set was fabulous all the same. It combined the backstage area, the stage itself and a small area outside the stage door, all in the one set. The proscenium arch was placed across the stage facing diagonally left. For the scenes on stage there was a backdrop with a small exit on the right hand side, while cloth drapes, boxes and chairs completed the onstage set. At right angles to the proscenium arch were a couple of boxes, fortunately not blocking anyone’s view on that side. For backstage scenes, the backdrop was raised and we could see the open area with brickwork and doors, or the dressing rooms would be turned round so we could see those scenes. On the far right were the stage door and a small strip of stage down to the stairs which served as the outside world. Lighting changes emphasised one area or the other, and with dancing and one or two songs covering the scene changes, they kept some momentum going. Even so, the changes were a bit clunky, but they’ll improve for practice.

To set up a location in the musical-within-a-musical, they brought on, amongst other things, a box which they placed in the middle of the stage. A spotlight picked it out – this didn’t always happen tonight, but I assume it was intended – a white-gloved hand would open the box with a flourish, and then take out a strand of cloth to start the process. Others would come in to help attach the corners of the cloth set, and then it would be lifted up to give a wall and door (Petruchio’s place), an overhanging cloth (Padua) and a lovely cloth tree, with the patterns of leaves printed on the cloth as well as scalloped strips of cloth arranged all round it. They will find it easier in time, but tonight these sections were a bit too messy and held the energy back a little.

The costumes were lovely, and in period for the 1948 sections. The Elizabethan look was cunningly woven into the m-w-a-m costumes, though they wouldn’t pass muster at the Globe. The band was above and behind, as usual, and the set completely obscured them this time, but they were a strong presence, naturally. The dancing was fine – the opening number of the second half was about fifteen minutes long! – but the singing and dialogue need to be clearer; I lost a lot of Cole Porter’s witty lyrics, but again this will come on in time.

There isn’t an overture for this show, at least not in the usual style. The chorus sings the opening number, Another Op’nin’, Another Show, adding snippets of later songs, and taking practice runs at the choreography. It was a lively start, and the following scene, with Fred Graham giving some pre-opening notes and taking them through their bows, was good fun. The pre-show scenes continued to fill in the relationships. Lois and Bill (Bianca and Lucentio) are an item, but he gambles (and she’s susceptible to expensive presents, as we discovered later – not that it came as a surprise). Fred and Lilli are always sniping at each other, but she loves him deeply, despite having an ongoing relationship with a mystery man. When she was brought some flowers which were clearly a gift from Fred, as they were the same as the flowers she had in her wedding bouquet, she softened towards him; unfortunately he had intended the flowers for Lois, and although he tried to get back the note he had written for them, Lilli slipped it down her bodice as a good luck token, planning to read it later.

The first m-w-a-m scene, We Opened In Venice, involved the cast moving a load of boxes around the stage on a trolley (I assume). It was messy and lacked sparkle, but didn’t become too boring. Then they did the first set-in-a-box process, and it worked OK. Allowing for massive changes to the original, we then saw some of the opening scenes, with Baptista, Gremio, Hortensio, Lucentio, Bianca and Kate going through a sizeable chunk of Act 1 scene 1 (no Grumio or Tranio in this version), and with Lucentio making himself known to Baptista as a suitor for Bianca.

Bianca then made her feelings clear about her various suitors, and seemed to be happy to marry anyone, anyone at all, in Tom, Dick Or Harry, although there was a definite emphasis on ‘Dick’. At one point a suitor, Gremio I think, tore some cloth off Bianca’s skirt, leaving her with a leg-revealing gap. It looked odd, though presumably it would be easier to dance in, and it’s not unknown for musicals to show off the eye candy to best advantage. Fortunately that extended to the tight tights worn by the fit young men who leapt about the stage, definitely a treat for us ladies.

Petruchio arrived as the suitors were arguing about Lucentio, and broke up their quarrel. He was Lucentio’s friend this time, which meant poor Hortensio had very little to do. He sang I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua well enough, but the staging hasn’t stuck in my mind. I forget the exact order of events now, but Petruchio was introduced to Baptista, they left to have a drink, and at some point Kate and Bianca did a brief version of their argument, with Baptista breaking it up very quickly – this may have happened earlier.

With Kate left alone on stage, she used the table, chairs and drinking cups left behind as ammunition for I Hate Men. As Baptista and Petruchio came back on stage for the preamble to the wooing scene, Lilli went off stage, happily opening the note she had kept down her dress. This was where things started to go so very wrong. Having promised never to call Fred a bastard again, Lilli broke that promise a few moments later; we heard her from backstage. Baptista and Petruchio both looked alarmed, and then Kate came back out for the wooing scene, loaded for bear. She didn’t hold back on the pretend slaps, and with the scene being played almost in full, there were plenty of opportunities for her to inflict damage on the ‘bastard’. Finally he’d had enough, and after threatening her with a spanking, he actually carried it out, right there on the stage. The next song, Kiss Me, Kate, had her refusing to do any such thing, and so to the interval.

The second half started with Too Darned Hot, a number that didn’t advance the story but certainly got the energy up again after the break. Paul, Fred’s dresser, was the lead singer and dancer, and he did a splendid job, while the dancing was not only good, it went on for a long while. Hattie, Lilli’s dresser, also added some humour. She was sitting by the front of the stage, sewing something, and when Paul tried to get close to her, she made  several pointed comments, such as “you see this needle”, which did the trick  and kept him away. She also joined in the dance, briefly; singing was her forte.

With Lilli/Kate nursing a sore behind, the next scene was at Petruchio’s house. He nicked the cushion that someone brought on for her, took away what little food she managed to get her hands on – Lilli had been asking for a sandwich since before the show – and had a cloth door slammed in his face when Kate stormed off into their bedroom. His song, Where Is The Life That Late I Led?, was good fun, although I didn’t catch all the lines, and he used the full width of the stage to get us all involved.

Lilli’s mystery man, General Harrison Howell, arrived to take Lilli away – I’ll get to that part later – and after expressing his chauvinistic attitudes to Fred, he was recognised by Lois. She had featured strongly in the General’s R&R during the war, although she didn’t remember much of the ‘rest’ part. With Bill overhearing some of her conversation with General she had to explain herself to him, hence the number Always True To You In My Fashion, which they did very well.

Lilli’s attempt to leave the theatre had been scotched earlier, and since Fred had persuaded the General that Lilli’s request was just a whim, Howell wasn’t too supportive of her as they talked in her dressing room. He wouldn’t call the FBI, he wouldn’t let her eat after 21:00 hours, and fancy French hats would clearly be a thing of the past for the wife of the next Vice president of the United States of America! (No chance of that – he’d picked Dewey.) Despite this, they sang a sickeningly smoochy version of From This Moment On, a song inserted in the 1999 Broadway revival.

While Lilli dressed to leave, the rest of the cast entertained us with Lucentio’s love poem to his adored, Bianca. It has gloriously rubbish lyrics, but the tap dancing and singing were good, and as tap is my favourite I enjoyed this number the most. Lilli left via the stage door, and with Howell being so precise and demanding I was aware that this was a completely unsuitable match for her. Fred went back in for the end of the show, and then came the bit we’d all been waiting for.

To go back a little: Bill’s gambling was not successful, and he’d signed an IOU for $10,000 using Fred’s’ name. The gentleman holding the IOU, Mr Hogan, sent round two of his employees, known to us as First Man and Second Man, to collect on the debt. At first Fred denied all knowledge of the debt, claiming it wasn’t even his signature – they all say that – but when Lilli was planning to leave, he saw an opportunity. While acknowledging the IOU, he explained that he couldn’t pay it back till the end of the week, and with Lilli leaving, the show would fold immediately. The two gentlemen, well read in matters Shakespearean, were unhappy about Lilli’s career choice, and made their displeasure known by means of waving their guns around. Until her General arrived, there was nothing Lilli could do but soldier on, with two preposterously dressed minders watching her every move. Their spats didn’t really go with the Elizabethan style of their tabards, and First Man’s sunglasses simply had to be removed.

During the second half, these two men were checking in with Mr Hogan when they learned of a change of management. Mr Hogan’s debts of honour died with the man, so Fred was in the clear and the two men could leave, after changing out of their costumes of course. As they made their way out of the theatre, they found themselves in front of the curtain, facing the audience. Unsure of what to do, they whispered for a bit then launched into the impromptu (but wasn’t it lucky the band had the music ready) Brush Up Your Shakespeare. It went pretty well, though again it should improve with some more performances.

That done, and despite Fred telling someone to get Lilli’s understudy ready to play Kate, there was an empty seat for the final scene. The tree had been set up well enough – they are fiddly, those cloth sets – and the cast had an air of dejection, while Fred was deeply unhappy. With no Kate to supply her lines, and no widow for Hortensio (poor man), Bianca left the stage on her own and the men fell to arguing about the relative merits of the two wives. Lucentio sent for Bianca by one of the women who were in attendance; she didn’t turn up, natch. After Petruchio sent for Kate, there was a long pause, after which Bianca crept back on at the side of the stage and shook her head. Fred sat on a chair, head in hands, and the rest of the cast didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Then Kate came on from the back, in full costume, and walked to the front of the stage, with the rest of the cast reacting to her arrival. When she spoke her line “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?”, Petruchio leapt to his feet (pause while I blow my nose, sniffle, sniffle) and was overjoyed to see her. It felt absolutely right that she’d come back, and her song I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple was more a declaration of love for him than an expression of the sentiments in the lyrics. They finished with a rousing version of Kiss Me, Kate, and this time they did kiss, long and hard.

This was great fun, and despite the rough patches it looks set to be a winner. The cast are all excellent. Hannah Waddingham (Lilli/Kate) has an amazingly powerful voice, even allowing for the mike. She has the looks and the figure to be a 1950s star, and can also do the comedy and the anger. Alex Bourne matched her very well as Fred/Petruchio, with enough charm to offset both of his characters’ arrogance (just) and a strong voice. Holly Dale Spencer’s Lois/Bianca combo was very good, although it took me a while to get used to her facial expressions when she was dancing. She showed Lois’s chorus line background by always standing with one leg in front of the other, foot resting on the toes, and she sang and danced really well. Adam Garcia was another good match as Bill/Lucentio, although I felt his part wasn’t as clearly defined as the other three. Still, he sings and dances well, and isn’t hard to look at. David Burt and Clive Rowe made a good start as the two gangsters, and there’s more to come there too, while Wendy Mae Brown (Hattie) and Jason Pennycooke (Paul) gave excellent cameos in their small but entertaining parts, probably the best defined characters at this time.

Of the rest I particularly liked Paul Grunert who played Baptista; his looks of concern when things started to go wrong added to the fun, along with his attempts to get things back on track by repeating his lines. [From the post-show on 9thAug he has trouble remembering the exact lines anyway…]  The whole ensemble looked good, though, and with practice this show should come on tremendously. We’ve already booked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Lion In Winter – January 2012

7/10

By James Goldman

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Thursday 19th January 2012

We were a bit closer for this one than we like – Row B – because we didn’t book early enough. Even so, we had a good view of the action and heard every word, which made for an enjoyable afternoon. Unfortunately we also heard the mobile phone right behind us, and it was at a bad time (there’s a good time?) when Eleanor had just cut her arm. It’s all a ploy to manipulate Richard into giving her what she wants, so nothing to worry about, but the effect was spoiled by the ringtone. Anyway it’s a good old workhorse, this play, and this was a better than average production with some very good performances and a lot of humour. It’s mostly in the first half, true, but there’s still fun to be had in the second half, including one of the best lines – ‘all families have their ups and downs’; in context, it was hilarious.

This play is the archetypal family-from-hell Christmas. Everyone is plotting against everyone else, with the possible exception of Alais, and if I didn’t know the history I would have expected dead bodies to litter the stage. The bickering does get a little tiresome towards the end, but this cast kept our attention all the way through. I really enjoyed Joseph Drake as Prince John; we enjoyed his Nijinsky last summer at Chichester, and this snivelling Prince made a nice contrast.

The set was quite elaborate, making use of two revolves to change the scenery. They had small apartments for intimate gatherings, a larger reception area with a huge Christmas tree – the anachronisms were deliberate – two bedrooms and a wine cellar, all created with the minimum of fuss. I particularly liked the scene in the French King’s bedroom, with two Princes hiding behind the tapestry, another in the four-poster screened by the curtains, and King Henry himself knocking on the door to have a word. The costumes were mock mediaeval, in keeping with the setting, and worked very well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – October 2011

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Thursday 6th October 2011

This was disappointing, especially after the two much livelier Shakespeare productions we’ve just seen. I have no criticism for the actors, but the production itself was pretty bog standard and often dull, with just a few good sections to keep us in our seats. Admittedly, we were tired after all our travelling, but we’ve seen plays in similar circumstances and been enthralled; not so today.

My main problem was with the set. Prospero’s cell was to our left, and occupied the left-hand box in front of the pros arch. The boxes at the side were mostly swathed in blue cloth, which gave a sort of connection to the rest of the stage, but the fake boxes on either side of the stage, that were part of the Waiting For Godot set, were left as is, so I could only conclude that this deserted island just happened to have a crumbling theatre on it, which rather spoilt the picture. The brick wall at the back didn’t help either, and although this was masked for the performance, I never felt this was a remote island in any sea.

The use of wires to fly Ariel in and out, along with some of the other spirits, looked a bit clumsy at first, but after a while I accepted it, and by the masque scene I was enjoying the spectacle of several flying goddesses. Ariel’s makeup and movement were a bit jerky, as was the delivery of the lines, so not my favourite interpretation, but it worked well enough in this production.

Nicholas Lyndhurst was reasonably good as Trinculo, but Clive Wood seemed completely miscast as Stephano. Their routines with Caliban were moderately funny, but not as good as we would have expected from such strong casting, so clearly something’s gone wrong somewhere. The rest of the cast were OK, and the lines were spoken well enough, but there just wasn’t any sparkle to the performance, sadly.

One aspect of the staging I did like was the opening section, where Prospero came on stage, laid down his staff across the front of the stage, and conjured the storm as we watched. He then stood back as the crew came up through the hatches, and was a background presence for the early part at least – I didn’t notice him all the way through. Another interesting choice was to use two additional actors as extra Ariel’s – they were able to run around the ship causing mayhem, as described by Ariel later, and adding to the image of a mischievous spirit.

Ferdinand and Miranda were like a couple of teenagers, getting some funny facial reactions from Prospero. When he was talking to them, allowing them to be together, he can hardly get a word in edgeways at times because Ferdinand is so full of formal speeches himself. That worked well, but it wasn’t enough to lift the whole performance. There are better Shakespeare productions to be seen, and not all in London.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead – May 2011

Experience: 6/10

By Tom Stoppard

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th May 2011

I’ve usually found Tom Stoppard’s work a bit cerebral for my taste, and this play was no exception. There are some good bits, and this is likely to be a very good production once it’s settled in, but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourites.

Tonight’s performance had a ripple of understudies due to the indisposition of Tim Curry, so although I didn’t detect any significant fluffs, future performances are bound to come on a lot. I didn’t catch all the understudy names, and it was too recent a change for printed slips in the program, but I gather that the part of The Player was taken by Chris Andrew Mellon.[Oops, we’ve since found the insert – Chris Andrew Mellon confirmed, and his role as Player King taken by Stephen Pallister 3/6/11] Since they haven’t yet had their understudies run, the audience was suitably appreciative of his efforts, and he managed the part really well, getting across the swagger and bluster, and doing a particularly good death scene, I thought. All the best to Tim Curry, of course, for his recovery.

The set was quite beautiful, one of Simon Higlett’s best. The floor of the stage was covered in glossy black boards which followed the stage’s shape apart from two triangular cut-outs, one on each side, giving the overall effect of an arrow head. Above this was a similarly shaped layer of black boards, but with gaps, like a pergola. The back wall and surround were full of stars for the outdoor night scenes, and the central rear doors were flanked by two concealed doorways with false perspective arches, which gave a fantastic impression of a vast castle.

At the start, there was a tree centre back; this was removed when the players arrived with their cart (very Mother Courage), but it was done so well that I just didn’t spot it. After the players leave, R&G are transported straight to the castle, so the arches are on show for a major chunk of the play. There’s some set dressing for The Murder Of Gonzago – this time we’re seeing the dress rehearsal – which was mainly four tall candle holders, a rug and two small chests.

Once off to sea, part of a ship and three barrels are carefully positioned on the stage. The ship has an upper deck with a deckchair, screened by a large umbrella; it turns out that Hamlet has been snoozing there through the start of this scene. The barrels are large, which is just as well, as the players, scared by the hostile reception of their play at court, have stowed away by hiding in them. One of the best bits tonight was watching them all clamber out.

After the ship scene, I think the set was bare till near the end, when some of the Gonzago trimmings were brought back on for the very end of Hamlet itself, when the ambassadors from England have arrived to report that R&G are dead.

The play is certainly interesting, taking a sideways look at these two minor characters as they wend their short path through this famous play, and bringing up many philosophical ideas along the way. It’s those philosophical bits that tend to drag, in my view. It may be that Jamie Parker as Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) will find a delivery that brings out more humour in those lines, but I suspect they would be a bit dry for me regardless. Samuel Barnett as Rosencrantz (or ………?) was more down to earth, stupider and generally had the funnier lines, and his was the more assured performance at this point in the run. The constant coin tossing had some humour, though it went on a bit long, and the players were good fun, though also a bit long winded. I enjoyed the mathematical joke of the bet – that a date of birth, doubled, will be even – and it shows how wide-ranging this content of this play is.

With their arrival at Elsinore, the actual Shakespearean dialogue makes an appearance, and it’s to Stoppard’s credit that he manages to blend the two styles so well. Many another writer has incorporated chunks of Will’s work into theirs, only to show up their own inadequacies; Stoppard holds his own just fine, and although I wasn’t totally loving this, I didn’t find myself wishing I was watching Hamlet instead, a good sign. (Mind you, I did wonder if the actors having a go at a partial Hamlet were wishing they could do the full version.)

The dress rehearsal was nicely done, adapting the snippet we see in the regular version into a reprise of the Hamlet plot, with two new characters, looking uncannily like R&G, involved in this one. We even get to see the executions in England. R&G are troubled by the similarities for a while, especially when their doubles take off their capes and their costumes are so similar to the original R&G’s, but the pair soon reassure themselves that all is well.

There’s a string of pearls used in this section – I think it was presented by the usurping king to the widowed queen to persuade her to marry him – and tonight the string broke, scattering pearls everywhere. Presumably this was not meant to happen. The actors soon cleared up most of them, but a stray pearl travelled further than the rest, and it was Rosencrantz who did the honours and removed it in passing.

When the duplicate R&G’s are killed, and their capes placed over them, the lights go down – it’s after Claudius has stormed off – and when they come back up, it’s the ‘real’ R&G who are under the capes. These two are on stage all the time, with the action of Hamlet coming to them, so they can’t actually go anywhere to search for Hamlet, leading to an entertaining scene where they opt to go in different directions, then together, then one way, then another. There’s a short scene on the beach, where Hamlet encounters Fortinbras’s men, and then they’re on the boat. When Hamlet is saying his soliloquies, by the way, he has a tendency to drift to the back of the stage and mutter to himself.

In the process of figuring out what they’re going to say when they get to the English court, R&G role play that encounter, and as a result they open the letter and find out that Hamlet is to be killed. Much consternation. Then they go to sleep, Hamlet sneaks down from his deckchair and swaps the letters, and they’re on their way to oblivion.  The players emerge from the barrels, the pirates attack, and Hamlet disappears with them, leaving R&G with nobody to present to the king of England, so they redo the role play to get some ideas, open the letter again, and hey presto, they’re now the ones for the chop. That’s pretty much it for these two. We don’t see their executions, and the final scene shows their deaths being reported to the Danish court, or what’s left of it.

The performance showed signs of this being a very good production, once they’ve had time to bed it down. It’s not my ideal kind of play, but I hope it does well here and in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Flare Path – April 2011

10/10

By: Terence Rattigan

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Wednesday, 6th April 2011

We saw a touring production of this many years ago; not a great production and the play didn’t strike us as one of Rattigan’s best. We’re very fond of Rattigan’s work, so we came to this performance with the best attitude – we didn’t have high expectations, but we were keen to see the play again in a more powerful production, to get a better sense of its scope.

Personally, I was gone long before it started. About twenty minutes before the off, they started playing 1940s swing numbers to get us in the mood. I didn’t recognise any specific songs, but the period feel was perfect. Then I started reading the program notes, about Rattigan’s own wartime experiences and the strategy of the bombing campaign against Germany. I had to clean my glasses again, they’d become all mucky from my tears.

And there were more tears to come, for all sorts of reasons. The play started quietly enough, with an almost empty set, the residents’ lounge of the small country hotel where all the action takes place. There was a door to the lounge bar front left, with the light switches beside it, further back was the reception desk, and back left was the main door. The stairs were back right, and between the door and the stairs was the enormous window, all carefully taped up in case of bombs. On the right was the fireplace, and there were lots of chairs and tables scattered around. Above this main set, there was a panel which showed pictures of the take offs, including the final, fatal one. There were also many sound effects of plane engines – thank God they didn’t use Lancasters or I’d have been well sodden before the interval.

The play began with the arrival of Peter Kyle, a famous film actor, born British but now an American citizen. He’s recognised fairly quickly by the only other person in the lounge, Doris, otherwise known as the Countess Unpronounceable (Skriczevinsky). She’s not Polish herself, but is married to a Polish pilot, Johnny. She persuades Mrs Oakes, the hotel proprietor, to let Mr Kyle have a room for the night – even though we’ve established that the hotel is full, she grudgingly lets Mr Kyle sleep in the Wing Commander’s room, but makes him promise not to touch any of the Wing Commander’s things.

This scene is a marvellous combination of different facets of life at that time. Eager for news (aka gossip), Doris is bright and chatty one minute, then when she hears the sound of engines she becomes brisk and businesslike, with a strong sense of underlying tension. It could seem an odd shift, but here it worked brilliantly to take us into the characters’ world without a lot of explanation. Fortunately, with Peter Kyle being an ex-pat, so to speak, there were plenty of opportunities to explain RAF slang to everyone when needed, and although many of the terms are familiar now, I found it helpful to be reminded that these words and phrases were just being coined.

The other characters start arriving, and soon we’ve met rear gunner Miller, his wife Maudie, Johnny the Polish Count, Teddy Graham (a bomber pilot) and his wife Patricia, who used to be an actress, and who had even been in one of Mr Kyle’s plays in London some years ago (Steve and I exchanged knowing looks).

We also met Percy, the hotel’s waiter, a young lad not yet old enough to be called up but old enough to take a keen interest in the activities of the local bomber squadron. He didn’t get anything out of the bomber crew, but that didn’t stop him spreading rumours about likely raids and intended targets.

The final character is ‘Gloria’, aka Squadron Leader Swanson, who appears late in the first act to send the airmen on a dangerous mission. With her husband off to fight the Hun, Patricia doesn’t get a chance to tell him she’s leaving to be with Peter, and as events unfold, first she and then Peter himself recognise that they have to end their affair.

Just as they end things, we’re treated to the safe return of Johnny, who landed in the drink, and had quite an adventure getting back to base. With his arrival, everyone cheers up, apart from Peter and Patricia, and the play concludes with drinks all round – even Mrs Miller has a port in her hand and the beginnings of a smile on her face – and the first verse of a very lewd song.

There were marvellous performances all round. Although I found Sienna Miller and James Purefoy to be more ‘theatrical’ than the rest, that was reasonable given their characters, so I’m not complaining. The most emotional scene, where Teddy breaks down and reveals his terror to his wife, was very moving and difficult to watch. Harry Hadden-Paton’s performance was particularly good – it’s a tricky scene to get right, but he went a long way into the man’s fear and sense of his own weakness without losing my sympathy or making it comic. Of course, his wife’s reactions are an important part of making the scene work, and Sienna Miller held her own beautifully.

The other sniffle fest was after this, when Peter reads the Count’s letter to his wife, given to her in case he doesn’t return from a ‘do’. Written in French, she needs Peter’s help as translator, and there’s a moment for both of them when he reads that the Count had been looking forward to taking his wife home to his country after the war; Peter had voiced the opinion that she was a Countess only till the war was over (how wrong can you be?) and she had overheard him (that’s the trouble with public lounges). Both actors made the most of this intimate moment, even though it wasn’t really an intimacy between themselves.

For all the sniffles, there were also a lot of laughs to help things along. With very little actually appearing to happen, we still get a fascinating insight onto life at that time for a particular section of the population, such is Rattigan’s skill as a playwright. We’re really looking forward to the rest of the planned Rattigan productions this year – if they’re half as good as this, we’re in for a fantastic time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me