Friday 26 July 2019

The Night Of The Iguana - Review

Noël Coward Theatre, London


Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by James Macdonald

The play's company
Set in a rundown hotel in 1940, atop the cliffs of Mexico’s Pacific coast ,  Tennessee Williams’ The Night Of The Iguana offers up a glimpse of troubled lives in a dramatic cocktail that proves as intoxicating as a well mixed rum coco. The play was inspired by Williams’ own 1940 Mexican travels and his evident love for both time and place – and all set in a period before America had been sucked into the maelstrom of World War 2 – are evident. 

Clive Owen plays the Rev Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked minister now banished from the USA and reduced to leading guided tours around the world’s less glamorous regions. Shannon has led a reluctant party of Texan schoolgirls and their teacher (Finty Williams as a wonderfully Southern Baptist Judith Fellowes) to the hotel - a stop not included on the published itinerary - and their apparent entrapment at the remote location only heightens aspects of the story’s tension. We learn that Shannon has committed statutory rape (sex with minors) and as the evening unfolds we witness this priapic priest barely able to control his lust. Owen (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeremy Clarkson) is on stage throughout most of the play, and his delivery of this strangely, vilely, complex role is a tour de force.

Playing Maxine Faulk, the wise and recently widowed hotelier, is Anna Gunn. There is evidently a complex history to Faulk and Shannon. She knows him inside out, replete with all his failings and yet is passionately drawn to the deeply damaged man. Gunn’s work is masterful – sassy yet vulnerable, and hinting at an absolutely fascinating back story.

And then arriving at the hotel are the penniless Hannah Jelkes played by Lia Williams, a middle-aged (con) artist accompanied by her nonagenarian poet grandfather, delightfully fleshed out by Julian Glover. Williams lays down yet further sadness as Jelkes outlines her back story of a woman who has seen love pass her by, save for two seedy encounters over many decades - and a childhood that she hints at as having been traumatised by profound emotional and sexual abuse. 

This being 1940, (and the play having been written in 1961) Williams also cheekily lobs in a family of raucous Germans to his “Mexican Berchtesgaden”, Nazis fleeing Europe and using Mexico either as a gateway to South America or a back-door to the States. 

The play’s themes are as complex as they are ultimately simple - but what stands out from this three hour opus is that it was written at a time when literary craftsmanship was at its finest. Williams touches upon some of the most painful and intimate aspects of humanity - sex, love, loneliness and abuse – but does so throughout with a beautiful and carefully worded prose that displays a complete absence of profanity. The strength of The Night Of The Iguana rests upon a sensational cast bringing the most sensitive of images into relief, via their spoken word. As they perform, the most moving and painful vignettes play out in our minds’ eyes - and it makes for a truly rare event to see theatre that is so richly created and performed.

James Macdonald has assembled a masterful team of creatives. Rae Smith’s mountainous Latin mountaintop convinces on its own – but accompanied by Max Pappenheim’s exquisite soundscape, the suspension of our disbelief is complete. The Night Of The Iguana is world class theatre.

Runs until 28th September
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Oklahoma! - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Directed by Jeremy Sams

Emmanuel Kojo and members of the company

With Jeremy Sams’ production of Oklahoma! Chichester Festival Theatre are back producing some of the country’s most exciting musical theatre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, set amongst the prairies and cattle ranches of what was known at the turn of the 20th Century as Indian Territory (the state of Oklahoma only being formed in 1907), takes a story of love, action and passion set to some of the finest tunes in the canon. But for all the genius in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s writing, Oklahoma! is a desperately dated piece. It was a time when unmarried daughters were seen as very much their fathers’ property, while the biased frontier justice that is meted out in the show’s final act makes one realise just quite how sugar-coated the Broadway audiences of 1943 needed their stories to be.

But amidst this dated glimpse of a post-Civil War America, Sams and his creative team have delivered theatrical magic. In a bold casting move the two leading roles are given to relative industry newcomers. Hyoie O’Grady plays the cowboy Curly, smitten with a (mutual) love for Amara Okereke’s Laurey. O’Grady is a vocal delight, his opening bars of Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ stirring the Chichester audience into a foot-tapping frenzy. He needs to find a touch more gravitas to truly weight the role – but this will likely emerge during the run. As for Okereke, this blog has long followed her youthful genius and she makes a fabulous Laurey, capturing the fierce independence of the orphaned farmer alongside the fears and vulnerabilities of a young woman. Her singing is a delight – and her dance, especially in the Dream Ballet routine, sensational.

It is in the supporting roles that Sams lays on the heavyweight talent. Josie Lawrence as the matriarchal Aunt Eller brings a wryness and compassion to the role, with a raucous wit and perfect timing that captures the older woman’s wisdom, as well as some moments of cracking comedy. The biggest plaudits of the night though rest with Emmanuel Kojo’s Jud Fry, perhaps one of the most complex characters ever penned during Broadway’s Golden Age. Fry is a damaged lonely man, cruelly mocked by Curly in their duet Pore Jud Is Daid. That number however serves as but a warm up to Fry’s Lonely Room, a song in which Kojo delivers a bass baritone performance that is as moving as it is thrilling and ultimately terrifying. Daniel Evans (Chichester’s Artistic Director) unlocked Kojo’s craft in his 2015 Showboat at Sheffield (the actor’s Ol’ Man River still resonates) and it is hard to think of any other UK actor that could have delivered such a perfect interpretation of this challenging part.

Comic support was well delivered by Scott Karim as pedlar Ali Hakim. Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie can sure sing 'purdy' but her acting through song needs a little more time – her character's lines drip with carefully crafted gags, too many of which are wasted on the night. Neat work too from Isaac Gryn whose dance routine in Kansas City was flawless.

Indeed – the dance work throughout was magnificent and ingenious. Matt Cole has drilled his company immaculately with the previously mentioned big dance numbers being breathtaking in their ambition – and Cole produces further fine work in The Farmer And The Cowman.

Robert Jones’s set design makes fine work of the Festival Theatre’s deep jaws as Mark Henderson’s lighting segues seamlessly between the dustbowl of the farmlands and the vividness of Laurey’s nightmare.

This production delivers a Broadway treat that is rarely seen over here. While the show’s politics and nuances may be from a different era, its songs and commentary upon love and the human condition are timeless - and high above the stage Nigel Lilley's 15-piece band makes splendid work of Richard Rodgers' glorious melodies. Well worth a trip to the South Coast, Oklahoma! is one of the finest musicals around.

Runs until 7th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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