The Norman Conquests

Alan Ayckbourn says there is no right order in which to see his trilogy Norman Conquests. So I’m just seeing them today in the order Chichester Festival Theatre presents them (along with breakfast, lunch and dinner – hoorah). 

We start with Round and Round the Garden  in 20 minutes or so and I’ll probably review the three together. 


No Need to Apologise

Stockard Channing (The West Wing, Grease and many, many more) hosts this family get together on her birthday in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia at the Trafalgar Studio. She, a succesful art historian and former radical student and 60s revolutionary, is the lightning conductor for her sons – and to a lesser extent, their girlfriends – who we discover are massively upset they are not mentioned in her recent memoirs. Even though this was an account of her working life rather than the personal. 

We glimpse a broken marriage, the young sons spirited away by a father who is never fully formed. But surely there must be more to it than that. 

To a certain extent it’s these gaps in the canvass that make it such a complete painting. Unlike many plays about family affairs where we care little about any of the characters (yes Hamlet, I mean you) here we want to know more. There seemed to be real emotion generated in the kitchen set. More than would be sparked by the surface plot lines. 

And I think that is what struck a cord with the audience. Everyone could recognise their own family gatherings where the tension is raised by the back-story which is known to the participants but not the observers. Here we had a chance to side with, to understand, to sympathise with all of the characters. Or none, as we pleased.

Channing played the fading radical – her picture of Marx relegated from pride of place to the downstairs loo – as a tough, feisty feminist still calling out her banker son for his lack of ethical trading. But she she also seemed to be going through the motions. For old time’s sake.

She was more than ably supported by the four other members of the cast (both sons played by Joseph Millson) and the sharp script was witty and poignant by turns. Desmond Barrit was magnificent as Hugh, the gay friend and confidant of the matriarch Kristin. The acerbic wit of the character and the comic timing of the player was certainly reminiscent of many a Falstaff. And, indeed, it would have only needed a couple more laugh out loud moments to turn this into a full blown comedy of manners. 

I was left with questions unanswered and instead of the usual shrug of the shoulders I was wanting to see the play again. Or at least to read the script, to see if I’d missed the answers elsewhere. 

There were a few empty seats for the performance I saw. If you get a chance, fill them up. You won’t be disappointed. 

A Knight’s Tale

Unlike George I have been a little behind in tilting at dragons. Or writing theatre reviews. This will change. Starting now.

St George and the Dragon at the National Theatre is a little too early for the panto season, but that is where it should lie. This over bloated allegorical tale is a cross between the Ambridge Xmas Special and the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Its saving grace is that the intentional jokes in a hopeless script are funny. The rest of the dialogue is jaw-droppingly bewildering and, therefore, often unintentionally funny.

But at no point did I want to leave. Surprisingly.

This is a tale about how progress is the saviour which can release us from our demons (or dragons in this case). Until it isn’t and we have to tear down the progress we have made. I think.

Some people say it’s one can read across to Brexit. Europe good then Europe bad. If so, fine by me because (no plot spoiler – it’s too predictable) the remainers win. But it is too incoherent to have a political message even in today’s more complicated geopolitics.

Rae Smith’s set design brought little England to the National’s revolving stage in an obvious homage to Danny Boyle’s industrial and industrious set in the Olympic stadium. Zip wires and pyrotechnics brought the dragon to full panto realisation – Puff rather than Smaug – rather than human form which mostly represented the collective ills of the nation. Julian Bleach starred as the rather camp personification of the dragon. Think Alan Rickman, Prince of Thieves.

The rest of the cast do a variable but solid job of turning the author’s words into a play.  The only standout performance was from the child playing, er, the child throughout. It maybe that the cast were never really clear whether they were supposed to be playing for laughs. But it was the laughs I liked the best.

Should you go and see it? It’s billed as an epic folk tale for the modern age which is a load of pretentious old bollocks. But it is a bit amusing, occasionally wryly so and occasionally laugh out loud funny. It’s unlikely you will hate it and I’d be surprised if you loved it. But I’m not disappointed I went.

Let’s go

If Kafka did Beckett it would probably be the best Shakespeare in the world. Or something like that.

And that’s pretty much what we seem to have in this realisation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead directed by David Leveaux.

Tom Stoppard’s R&G is deliberately framed on Waiting for Godot, and this production makes certain the references are not missed. The step ladder – standing in for Beckett’s tree – makes it through all three acts from country to court to ship, and is a continuous reminder of Godot, whoever she is.

The simple set allows drapes to contain the action, or lack of it, and provide a screen for rapid scene changes. But in this production the stage is all the world, and all the players merely men and women. This is the ordinary. The hum drum. The inevitable. But at a courtly level and at a furious pace.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mates, as are their actors Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire respectively in real life. And they are clearly that on stage. The games. The one-upmanship. The petty rows. The serious arguments will all be too familiar to any close friends.

This is an absurdist comic play about those relationships. We are looking in from a different angle on a play we all know very well. And when Polonius addresses the audience in classic ‘old-Shakespearian’ style, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin to see that they may be part of a bigger story, with other people watching on, dictating their moves.

Although this is an absurdist, philosophical comedy that doesn’t mean all you get is a knowing, wry humour. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, and the cast, particularly including David Haig as the impresario actor leading the players within the play (within the play), appear to be having an absolute hoot.

However, there are some serious questions asked. We all know the plot of this play from Hamlet. We know the denouement. That makes the references to death which run throughout even more poignant. Rosencrantz sums this up when he asks “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death?” But even death can’t hold its sting for long. David Haig’s troupe are able to provide death to order for a guilder or eight. “Deaths for all ages and occasions! Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition! Climatic carnage, by poison and by steel! Double deaths by duel!”

The big difference between this play and Godot, of course, is that even if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little grasp on what’s happening and no understanding of what lies ahead, we can see it all too clearly. When I see Hamlet (the play, not the character) I have this urge to give the main characters a good shaking and tell them all to pull themselves together. Tonight, Hamlet (the character, not the play) actually seemed self-assured. In command of his own destiny — apart from when he gets killed, of course. It’s poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that need taking out of themselves.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Old Vic
8 March 2017


Whatever I see Tamsin Greig in, Black Books always hovers on the edge of the performance. And that was ideal for this version of Twelfth Night at the National. Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t always played for laughs but this one was.

The stage set revolved around the massive mast of the storm tossed ship from the opening scene. At each scene change a revolve revealed a new slice of Illyria – sweeping stairs, a garden, rooms, a nightclub, more rooms, a cell, a church and a jacuzzi. Played in dress of an indeterminate age, the play allowed the cast to squeeze every ounce of humour from the plot. 

And the plot had a significant twist. Tamsin Greig – remember her – played Malvolio. Or in this recasting, Malvolia. With the fool, Feste, also played by a woman a whole different layer of gender bending was added to the original conceit of a female twin posing as a man with all the obvious mistaken identities when her brother appears, saved from the shipwreck. 

This three hours flew by. Even the scene where Malvolia is imprisoned, which usually seems disjointed and out of place, was a seemless part of this production. Malvolia’s supposed madness which led to her imprisonment is brought on as she believes she is following the dress code and demeanour which will win the heart of her Mistress (but not her mistress) Olivia. A male Mavolio merely presents yellow knee length socks tied in an elaborate fashion. Tamsin Greig wears a whole body bee-like costume which is so ostentatious that the revolving flowers on her nipples seem commonplace. One can believe in the madness of this love struck Malvolia.


Twelfth Night, The National Theatre
21 February 2017

The play’s the thing

Went to see the critically acclaimed Hedda Gabler at the National and left feeling it was a little over-acted, a little over-interpreted, a little over-staged.

I was pleased to have seen it and it was certainly worth the money – given I didn’t pay – but I was left with a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Something major or several minor somethings, but it didn’t quite gel.

I guess the main problem is that we’ve seen too many strong women as victims or villains. Hedda was written as villain, but this production cast her more as victim and as a modern production it didn’t work. This wasn’t a modern woman the victim of coercive abuse, trapped in a lifestyle that is alien to her very being. This was no Helen from the Archers. This was a slightly bored woman who had decided to settle down and had settled for the wrong marriage. She could have walked out at any moment. She would have walked out halfway through her honeymoon.

But neither was she a Lady Macbeth, although there were the occasional echoes – “it’s what a wife does for her husband” when she helps clear a path for her husbands promotion against his rival and her former lover. Set in Edwardian times there would have been fewer questions about the motives of Hedda, and fewer plot distractions – what was that bloody book manuscript doing on paper rather than a memory stick?

Set in a huge white box of a single room the cast gave it their best shot and they all gave great performances in the face of a muddled and muddied production. Ruth Wilson was the standout in the leading role but even she couldn’t quite persuade me that Hedda would have followed the course she did. A misfiring that produced its own metaphor in the final scene when an accidental two second delay between a trigger being pulled and the bang of the gun-shot was met with bemused silence rather than the gasp that would be expected even with the more usual off-stage finale.

So – nearly but not quite as far as I was concerned. A mannered play about manners.

Having said all that, I would certainly still recommend a look at this one. Certainly most of the chatter around us after the close was very enthusiastic about all aspects of the production, not just the acting.

And given my impending retirement, 23 days and counting, I have decided that in future I should take on the role of grumpy old git theatre critic and start awarding stars, or lack thereof. And because I think a lot of productions deserve more than a simple start rating I’m using smilies. As you can see this play gets two smilies and two not so sure. Not quite a four star rating in old money but certainly above average.

 🙂  🙂  😕  😕

Hedda Gabbler, The National, 7 February 2017

Never a happy ending…

“Don’t expect people to live happily ever after,” was Jan’s warning for any theatregoers going to any of Sean O’Casey’s plays. And that certainly held true for the ‘The Plough and the Stars’ at the National.

This gripping production of the inevitable consequences for ordinary decent people of the catastrophic leadership of the 1916 Irish uprising was a comic then tragic horror story with so many resonaces for the modern day – whether the conflict is armed or verbal. Plays about ordinary lives of ordinary people, of whatever class, often descend into senseless avoidable tragedy. There is nothing heroic in the Plough and Stars. Any more so than there is in Romeo and Juliet, or the Great Gatsby, or Cathy Come Home. Nor are there any heroes.

It does take a little time to get used to the Irishness of the accents. So much so that at half time I complained of the cod-Irish I was hearing, only to be admonished that the bulk of the cast were actually Irish – mea culpa. It’s a little like getting used to lilt of an early English version of Chaucer, but once you’ve caught the melody of the accent it becomes much easier. Easier to follow and a harder watch as the grim brutality unfolds.

I love a rotating set and the massive tenement interior rotated to an exterior, a pub, and a new interior for the final scenes of death and despair. The set changes were smoothly handled and the sets themselves detailed representations of wartime tenement life. When the leading player, Nora Clitheroe played by Judith Roddy, is unable to persuade her husband not to march to the call of the Irish Citizen Army, one can see the tragedy ready to unfold in front of you against this massive backdrop.
As with the ‘Juno and the Paycock’ – the only other O’Casey play I have seen – the women are the strong characters and those who bear the most of the suffering. That doesn’t mean that they are without fault themselves – Nora’s  lack of any sympathy for a dying soldier and the readiness of others to set off on a looting spree during the breakdown of law and order of the uprising being simple examples. It is hard to have any real empathy with any of the characters but your capacity for sympathy will be stretched to the limit.

With all the men being characterisations, almost caricatures, to tell the story of the uprising – the republican soldier, the union man, the communist, the bombast, the politician – the publican is the one person who seems to live in the world we can readily identify with. Indeed his constant exhortations to the abusive men and women in his bar to ‘speak easy’ seems somewhat resonant of today’s exhortations to calm the excesses of social media comment.

The six months of this story line are effortlessly compressed into the the two and half hours or so of the ruling time. I think that was enough. Although there was much humour in the play it was harrowing enough to make me feel somewhat drained at the end. I have no idea how the cast manage to deal with it day after day.

If you are going to see a play about the everyday story of pre-revolutionary (failed) city folk this is probably it. I can see why it was not universally acclaimed when first performed in 1926, at least by the republicans who felt they could do no wrong. But republican or loyalist or agnostic it’s a tale worth the seeing of today.


Lift your faces

Lift your faces

“The people don’t lift their faces from their screens long enough to see what is going on.”


That was certainly true of a row of American students at the Almeida Theatre, eyes glued to their iPhones, texting their friends. Or their teachers. Or their dogs (you must read October Jones).

And they were the lucky ones.

This production of 1984 by Headlong is an irritating mixture of interesting ideas and techniques and a cacophony of deafening noise and blinding light. When it is bad, it is shockingly bad, and not in a good way. There is no real shock. There is no fear. There is no brooding menace.

There is shouting. There is a very shrill whistle. There are very bright lights.

Unfortunately there is no light shone on Orwell’s book by this too clever by half production. The use of a video wall at first is a method of seeing as well as hearing “noises off”. As well as offering a reflection of Big Brother’s screens. And in the end it is a gimmick used because it’s there.

The action of the book is being mulled over at the start and end (and occasionally in-between) by a book-club who can’t work out whether it’s fact or fiction, current or history. Winston Smith oscillates between 1984 (or whenever) and the book-club tempting us to ask meaningful questions. Like “what the fuck is going on now.”

Frankly it was like someone had the germ of a good idea of how to make this book into a stage play and unfortunately ended up making it into a ghastly mess.

It was such a shame.

There were some really good bits in this performance.

I just can’t seem to remember what they were. Or where I am.

Blood’s Wet and Ears

When you are only a few feet away from the action, you would rather prefer that the newly severed head that Macduff is holding up by the ears wasn’t quite so realistic. Apparently a recent performance was halted as a woman in the front row fainted. Probably had nothing to do with the amount of blood that a severed jugular can spray around the place. The helpful tip from the usher prior to curtain up that the blood wouldn’t stain and would easily wash out filled the front couple of rows with confidence.

Macbeth must be the perfect play. A play that allows the cast to stretch their talent with no fear of failing.

This latest performance at the Trafalgar Studio must be one of a couple of dozen that I have seen and I can’t remember any which failed to grip. Of course some have been better than others – Patrick Stewart’s brutal, bloody dictator setting the highest bar – but each and every performance has delivered.

And this one delivered in right into your lap. Literally. 70 stage seats in the newly configured studio space were very close to the action. Possibly a bit too close to the woman in front of me as Macbeth sprayed blood over Banquo’s ghost and most of the front row in the banquet scene. (And what would have passed for a sumptuous banquet from a normal view was exposed as baked beans from our close-up seats.)

This was a high tempo, high action performance from James McAvoy as he bathed in the blood of a king, friends, and finally his own. But for all that, this was one of the more fatalistic interpretations. I suppose if you are going to believe the witches’ prophecies that lead you to the throne, then it it inevitable that you just shrug your shoulders when Burnham Wood upsticks and appears outside your castle door.

Before that, and for all his bluster Macbeth caves in a tad too easily when her Ladyship sharpens his knife and points him at the King’s bedroom door. Claire Foy played Lady Macbeth less as a psychopathic murdress (OK she went a bit nuts at the end) and more as an ordinary working class girl who wants to get on in life. “Things to do today. Get Macbeth to look around for a better job. Throw a couple of big house parties. And, oh yes, stab the king.”

Don’t you just hate it when ordinary people do bad things.

The first appearance of the androgynous witches in gas masks gave the feel that this tale was set in some future where the question of who rules Scotland is still to be decided. I wonder what the witches would make of Salmond.


When in Rome do what the Bad Girls do…

Julius Caesar ran Rome like a prison.

That made the setting of the Donmar’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar even more gripping as the inmates of a women’s prison perform this tale of the death of the great dictator.

Harriet Walter as Brutus is a sympathetic slayer of the tyrant, and, together with Frances Barber as Caesar, leads a strong cast in a performance full of the menace of a prison riot. And the two hours of plot, mayhem and retribution raced by without an interval.

The only weakness, as always, is a weakness in the play itself. There is no real explanation of why Caesar had to be deposed (perhaps the bard assumed his audience had a greater knowledge of Roman history), and no explanation at all why Mark Antony would seek to avenge the monster. But that minor irritation was swept away in this Bad Girls meets Stomp version of events. From rock opera opening to the Iron Butterfly drum solo battle scenes this was played with a pace only equalled by the recent all black cast at the Noel Coward Theatre.

And yet the slower and more deliberate passages – Antony’s over the body of Caesar, Brutus before the battle – are delivered with a power and clarity rarely evident in a traditional cast.

The bare grey of the prison block was a neutral canvass for cast to play against. The soothsayer was childlike and more compelling for that in her soft warning of the Ides of March. More chilling in her reminder that the day was not yet done. And when the murder came, Caesar was seated among the audience. Senators aghast at brutality in their midst.

In a trick learnt from many performances of Macbeth, the dead Caesar, like Banquo’s ghost, appeared on stage from nowhere. As an apparition in Brutus’ dreams, and as a silent witness to Antony’s revenge. But even this shade cannot escape the jailers as lights out sounds and the cell doors are slammed shut on a fabulous night at the Donmar.