Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Bitter Wheat - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


****

Written and directed by David Mamet


John Malkovich

Bitter Wheat introduces us to Barney Fein, an obesely mysogynist movie mogul who, drunk on money and power, views women as little more than his playthings. It is no coincidence that post autumn 2017 and in the #MeToo era, the assonance of the name and the description of the man sound troublingly familiar. 

Fein is an ugly man - inside and out, with an ugliness that is matched only by Mamet’s writing. For this is a play of two halves - a first act that builds towards an explosive exploitation of sexual violation, and a second half that rapidly disintegrates into implausibility. And yet - for all of Mamet’s madness, the chaos of his writing still holds a withering mirror to Hollywood’s vile, vacuous and timelessly rapacious culture. While recent scandals may have rightly pushed Tinseltown’s casting couch into the spotlight - that toxic masculinity and mindset has riven the movie industry for as long as cameras have been turning. 

John Malkovich is a fine Fein. Padded up he is as massive the role that sees him onstage throughout the two hour piece. There is satire here but without the slapstick - Malkovich marvels in a role that, like Pravda's Lambert Le Roux in Pravda or The Producers' Max Bialystock, takes recognisable caricatures, magnifying them into a driving force. Mamet takes no prisoners in his writing, with Fein’s Jewish ancestry proving an uncomfortable butt for some of the venom he receives. However, Mamet is to be applauded in recognising the close and long-established ties between his anti-hero and America’s Democrat Party - a recognition that will not sit easily amongst the liberal literati on either side of the Atlantic.

Malkovich is well served by his fellow ensemble who, to differing degrees, are there merely as foils to his monstrous nature. Doon Mackichan is his much put-upon assistant Sondra, a woman of questionable ethics and evident complicity and who, rat-like, flees Fein's sinking ship. Making her West End debut, Ioanna Kimbook plays the South Korean movie star Yung Kim Li who finds herself the subject of Fein's abusive lust. The writer has allowed little room for nuance in the part, but Kimbook turns in a neatly measured performance.

There may be a whiff of sensationalised cliché to this world premiere, but no matter. Mamet's subject is timely and relevant and Malkovich's performance is electrifying.


Booking until 21st September
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London



*****


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Trevor Nunn


Maria Friedman and Andy Nyman

With its first major cast change since opening - as well as a shift across the Thames - Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler On The Roof remains one of London’s musical theatre jewels. The intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory's original treatment is not quite replicated in the Playhouse’s transformation, that sees "shtetl-lite" timber cladding dotted around the auditorium, but with a winding pathway built through the stalls there's enough enhancement to draw the audience into Russia's Pale of Settlement and away from the show's traditional West End proscenium treatment.

Some six months into the role sees Andy Nyman sit ever more comfortably as Tevye. There is a wise youthfulness to both Nyman’s timbre and gait and even though the show is set at the turn of the last century, Nyman brings a perceptible modernity to his performance. His Tevye is a man witnessing the very tenets of his faith being tested as his three grown up daughters each explore their different paths towards emancipation and he remains convincing throughout. It helps that Nyman's voice is glorious too – resonant and thrilling in If I Were A Rich Man, yet deeply tender in Do You Love Me.

In a canny casting move by the producers, Maria Friedman and Anita Dobson make the move from Albert Square to Anatevka. Friedman’s Golde defines the Jewish matriarch, loving and compassionate, yet with a resoluteness that permeates her delivery. Friedman has long been recognised as a gifted musical theatre leading lady and it is only a shame that the show does not allow Golde more centre stage moments. Some in the audience may recall Friedman’s turn at the National Theatre some thirty years ago in Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto, a role that is today only enhanced as she displays a strength and resilience in portraying the timeless persecution of the Jews. At all times though Friedman acts with an artistic beauty that shuns mawkish schmaltz.

Dobson steps up to the role of the ageing, widowed Yente the village matchmaker. There is an unquestionable sparkle to Dobson’s work – in a role that Sheldon Harnick imbued with more than its fair share of the show’s witticisms – but currently she is more battleaxe than busybody and misses a hint of Yente's nuance. The criticism here  slight but subtle. Yiddishkeit is not easy to master, but given time and an exposure to Friedman and Nyman’s onstage chemistry, Dobson can only grow into the role.

Most of Nunn’s staging has transferred well – the wedding scene in particular – though amidst the lofty heights of a full London stage, Tevye’s Dream loses a little of the wit that worked so wonderfully within the Chocolate Factory’s intimacy.

Excellence continues to abound throughout the show – with Nunn eliciting every moment of Harnick’s wry, self-deprecating pathos. The show's song and dance is wonderful - sadly the message of Fiddler On The Roof and the agelessness of antisemitism remains as depressing as ever.


Booking until 2nd November
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Light in the Piazza - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


****


Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Daniel Evans


Renée Fleming

Crossing the Atlantic, Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza deploys some of the finest musical theatre talent in town to tell its curiously enchanting love story in a plot that upends one of society’s most deeply rooted taboos and prejudices.

The young and beautiful Clara Johnson together with her mother Margaret are American tourists footloose in Florence. A chance encounter with Fabrizio, a handsome Florentine, ignites a youthful, passionate love - and as Margaret anxiously frets over her daughter's emotions, a carefully nuanced story unfolds.

To say much more of the plot would spoil. Suffice to say that the unexpected twists offer a touching and unconventional portrayal of love, affection and the challenges of honesty that make for a rare and wonderful evening.

Making their professional debuts on this side of the pond are Broadway and opera’s leading lady Renée Fleming as Margaret, alongside Instagram and Hollywood star Dove Cameron playing Clara. Fleming’s classical voice stands out as a beacon of aural magnificence, effortlessly filling the Royal Festival Hall and notwithstanding the excellence that surrounds her on stage, Fleming’s powerfully poignant performance is worth the ticket price on its own. Cameron's Clara is an unexpectedly complex piece to deliver - and as the tale unfolds, she turns in an act of remarkably measured and touching sensitivity.

These two American women are the only players on stage allowed to perform in their native tongue. Everyone else has to masquerade in cod Italian - and if there is but one niggle of the piece it is the irritation of massed, cliched Latin dialects. The singing however is top notch. Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio captures the combination of Houchen’s physical and vocal beauty - the love that sparks between him and Cameron is delightfully plausible and convincing.

Alex Jennings is Fabrizio’s father - a man who we learn has never lost his admiration for the fairer sex, while Liam Tamne and Celinde Schoenmaker play his son and daughter-in-law. Guettel has liberally sprinkled his libretto with narrative-advancing solo turns throughout his cast, and under Daniel Evans’ perceptive direction the musical theatre treats are frequent.

For a simply presented semi-staged show, the highly spec’d creative work only enhances the production. Mark Henderson’s lighting offers an enchanting brilliance to Robert Jones’ delightfully suggestive set - as, sat above the action, Kimberly Grigsby conducts the Opera North orchestra in a lavish treatment of Guettel’s score.

Only on until July 4th before an international tour, The Light In The Piazza is a must see for all who appreciate modern writing and quality musical theatre.


Runs until July 4th

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Starry Messenger - Review

Wyndham's Theatre, London


***


Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Sam Yates


Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern

As a love letter to New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger serves a purpose. Matthew Broderick is Mark, a professor of astronomy who teaches an evening class in the introductory basics of his subject, with an aspect of the play forming an  autobiographical nod to classes actually taken by Lonergan and Broderick in their youth at the Planetarium, before it was demolished in 1997.

Lonergan’s story however takes our disbelief and suspends it by the slenderest of threads. Amidst a string of weak constructs, we observe Mark being tested by a mid life crisis that stresses his long standing marriage to Ann (Elizabeth McGovern). Along the way Lonergan offers up a glimpse of many recognisable facets of modern living, his text enveloping love, lovelessness, deceit, jealousy, grief and ageing - together with a smattering of hope too. But ultimately there is little in this piece that grabs the audience to take them on much of a dramatic journey. For the price of a West End ticket Lonergan serves up a slice of life which, and for a fraction of the cost, many of the show’s audiences may well be experiencing day in, day out. The message of the piece may well be that sh*t happens but life goes on, but this is far too skimpy an argument to drive three hours of troubled text. There’s perception in the writing that offers up a sequence of meticulously observed mundanities, but too much of Lonergan's fiction is just implausible. 

Broderick does what he does best - this is Leo Bloom, thirty years on only without Mel Brooks writing the comedy. And as drama The Starry Messenger falls way short of Albee’s barbed acerbity that made George and Martha such a horrendously compelling mid-life, middle-aged, monstrous couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Overall, Lonergan’s Mark misses the mark. 

The acting is fine throughout. Alongside Broderick, McGovern captures an inner angst as Rosalind Eleazar's trainee nurse Angela puts in another well defined turn. Jim Norton's curmudgeonly Norman, an elderly cancer patient who drives one of the show's subplots is also spot-on in depicting the emotional onslaught of his disease and its impact on daughter Doris (great work from Sinead Matthews). 

There are momentary gasps and occasional laughs but ultimately this is a stretched out evening at the theatre, albeit one with a starry cast.


Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Vincent River - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


**


Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by Robert Chevara


Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahey

Philip Ridley as a playwright is a theatre producer’s. The vivid scenes-capes that he creates tend not to require lavish casting nor expensive sets, being instead fleshed out by way of lengthy, descriptive monologues - windows onto the dysfunctional dystopia that Ridley perceives around him. The disappointment to the audience however is that when you’ve heard one Ridley monologue, it can feel like you’ve heard them all.

Vincent River is a two-hander that revolves around Anita, grieving for her dead son Vincent and Davey, a young man who, we come to discover, was connected to the dead young man. Lasting 90 minutes, the one-act piece never leaves Anita's flat.

Louise Jameson is magnificent as the mourning mother, with a subtlety of nuance and tone in her performance that sits alongside the raging howls of her unimaginable grief. Notwithstanding the tortuous convolutions that Anita is subject to through Ridley’s prurient projections, Jameson remains masterful throughout. Thomas Mahy’s Davey however, even this long into the role (the production has transferred from a run last year at the Park Theatre) is too stilted, too often.  Contrasted with Jameson's genius, Mahy is found to lack credibility and heft in delivering his complex and occasionally unpleasant character.

The circumstances of Vincent’s death were a brutal homophobic hate crime, with the show’s programme notes making  worthy reference to the prescience of Ridley's writing (the play premiered in 2000) amidst the "otherings" of today, and the violence of prejudice that exists across the world. Sadly however such hateful violence is nothing new to mankind, with history telling us that it has been here forever. Ridley’s tawdry words, at times offering little more than a virtual peep show into graphic descriptions of verbally violent torture porn, tell us nothing new.


Runs until 22nd June
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Friday, 24 May 2019

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

Piccadilly Theatre, London


****


Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes


Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley

Amidst the financial crash of 2007/08, one of the most memorable images was that of the summarily fired employees of Lehman Brothers investment bank streaming out of their offices in New York and London’s Canary Wharf, their personal possessions unceremoniously borne in those ubiquitous cardboard Bankers Boxes.

Those branded boxes form a scenic mainstay throughout Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy and in this opus of a play, that spans from the middle of the 19th century through to the early years of the 21st, the writer’s suggestions are clear. Not only were the seeds of the bank’s downfall planted at its very inception, but also that much of the responsibility for this most recent of financial calamities, lies at the feet of the three Lehman brothers who had arrived on the USA’s eastern seaboard as penniless Jewish immigrants some 160 years before.

This is an unpleasant even if unsurprising conflation, for the last surviving member of the Lehman dynasty to have actually served on the bank’s board was Bobby Lehman, a grandson of the founders and who himself had died in 1969, some 40 years prior to the bank’s collapse and hence well distanced from the decisions that led to its demise. This lapse of time however has not troubled Massini. Much as was sung in Monty Python’s Spamalot: “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you dont have any Jews”, so Massini switches Broadway for Wall Street and, like an East End mural, subtly fuels a troubling trope. 

The stagecraft on display in this 3.5 hours epic is breathtaking. Assuming all roles, genders, and ages, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles are a tour de force of a trio. With accents that are never too laboured and Sam Mendes having focused on the tiniest of nuances in each man’s work, their performances have to be amongst the finest in town. Es Devlin’s staging is ingeniously and suggestively slick - a simple minimally furnished revolve (complete with said boxes) enveloped by Luke Halls’ wraparound video screen - but it is the three actors who convincingly convey time, place and characters as they drive the narrative from the brothers’ humble beginning as Alabama cotton traders through to their dominance of New York’s financial district.

Massini keeps the three brothers clad in European/Victorian tailcoats throughout, reflecting the costume and time of their arrival on the eastern seaboard. But while this simplicity of clothing places a dramatic requirement upon the three men to enact their respective characters through their performances - a challenge that they not only rise to, but emphatically smash - its continual presence throughout the piece only heightens the play’s subliminally uncomfortable associations. 

Taking a step back from the production’s breath-taking technical brilliance - opening now in the West End having only just returned from an acclaimed, brief, New York transfer - the quality of the writing does not match the standards of Mendes’ cast and crew. While the story revolves around (and not entirely incorrectly) the brute avarice of capitalism with the horrors of the 1929 Wall Street crash featuring heavily in the second act, the argument is one-sided and there is little if any respect paid to the positive aspects of capital markets.

For sure the markets are imperfect, often profoundly so, but it was and remains risked capital that often created national as well as private wealth and much mass employment too. But for Massini it seems that these are inconvenient truths. Similarly, the story’s vast timeline is managed well until the third act’s endgame, when the four decades following Bobby Lehman’s demise are telescoped into a barely fleshed-out finale.

Notwithstanding its flawed message, in these times of unparalleled political polarisation The Lehman Trilogy will be lapped up by eager audiences. And for sheer technical theatrical genius, the play is in a class of its own.


Runs until 31st August. To be screened via NTLive on 25 July 
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Carousel - Review

Cadogan Hall, London


*****


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer

To read my recent interview with Janie Dee and Jo Riding, click here




Image may contain: one or more people and indoor
The company of Carousel
Every now and then theatrical magic descends...

So it was at the Cadogan Hall this week where Alex Parker had assembled a starry cast and a magnificent 30-strong orchestra to perform, for one night only, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. But this cast had something even more special, setting it apart from the throng of musicals currently playing in the West End and on Broadway. For back in 1992 Carousel had been staged at London's National Theatre in a production that featured Jo Riding and Janie Dee as female leads Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge. Such was the excellence of director Nicholas Hytner’s show that not only did his revival win the Olivier for Best Musical Revival and Best Director, but Riding and Dee won the Oliviers for Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Performer (both for in a Musical), respectively.

Riding and Dee had been recently reunited at the National as the leads in a revival of Follies and so it was an act of sheer vision that prompted Parker to invite the duo to reprise their Carousel magnificence in a concert performance of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.

Janie Dee and Jo Riding in Carousel, 1992

The pair’s contribution to the evening was a display, not only of continuing musical theatre excellence – but also of a sheer unbridled love for the show that they were singing. As the cast remained seated on stage when not called upon to perform, Dee’s passion for the piece was almost palpabke. When not performing herself she was absorbing the detail of the music and the occasion, almost in disbelief - not dissimilar to Billy Bigelow being granted the chance to descend from Heaven for a one day visit to Earth - that she had been granted a chance to reprise this heavenly score. Riding too was both entranced and enchanting and yet, in full keeping with the incredibly complex character that Julie is, maintained a sobriety that in no way diminished her evident love for the occasion.

Parker had rehearsed his musicians impeccably. From the opening bars of The Carousel Waltz, through to the closing strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone – not to mention the sheer brilliance of the demanding Act 2 Ballet, the music was a profound delight, accompanied by a vocal chorus of students from the Guildford School of Acting.

Alongside Riding and Dee, Hadley Fraser was  compelling and convincing as the violently troubled Billy Bigelow. Another character of deep complexity, Fraser imbued the errant husband with as much sympathy as could be afforded to his abusive nature. He also delivered a sensational Soliloquy.

Gavin Spokes captured Mr Snow’s comic pomposity perfectly, as Stewart Clarke’s Jigger was another deft turn from this talented young man, Clarke picking out his character’s malign opportunistic wickedness. Both men were vocally outstanding, with Matthew Kelly and Chizzy Akudolu complementing the set of supporting roles as The Starkeeper and Mrs Mullins respectively

As Nettie Fowler, Lucy Schaufer’s operatic background led to her spine-tingling take on You’ll Never Walk Alone. But back in 1992 it had been Patricia Routledge (not yet then a Dame) who played Nettie. Incredibly, and at the age of 90!, Routledge returned to this production as the narrator. For those in the audience who remembered the 1992 show, to see Dame Patricia singing along in the finale of the show’s totemic anthem was unforgettable.


Photo credit: Take Two Theatricals (2019) and Clive Barda (1992)