The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre

8.5/10

I ended up seeing The Ferryman twice – quite unintentionally – and I am glad I did. For, despite being hailed as the ‘play of the year’ this is not a production that reaches its full impact at first viewing. Like Butterworth’s previous work there is so much to take in that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I did not catch Uncle Pat’s eponymous ferryman speech until the second time round, for example.

The Ferryman is a play concerned with echoes and reverberations. In the course of one, long, festive day, we are shown how tragedies, legends and consequences ripple through families, countries and cultures – and in particular through the Carney family. In a cast made up of three generations, almost every character has a ripple and and an echo: whether they are women on the fringes of the action, left behind to care for broken families, or young men reliving the tragedies of their fathers and uncles, every character is enacting a story that already exists: Mary and Aunt Maggie take refuge in invalidity to cope with the loss of the men they loved; Aunt Pat and Caitlin both live lives marked by men who died; and Shane and his brother Diarmaid seem bent on re-enacting the sorrows of Quinn and Seamus Carney.

Folklore, mythology and politics ripple through the story – whether it is reverence for the IRA transmitted from Aunt Pat to her nephews and beyond, the folkloric tales of banshees becoming intermingled with the menace of the IRA, or the passive role being passed down to subsequent generations of women. Dreams, mythology, history and fact are all passed down from the same lips, with little distinction.

The most obvious theme rippling through the play is its characters relationship with the IRA. This starts with Aunt Pat’s generation, born at the dawn of the 20th Century: she loses the brother she idolises to the troubles in 1917 and keeps his revolver in her bedroom – remaining loyal to his ideals over the years to the point that she mourns for every hunger striker. Even when they are presented to her in the twisted form of thuglike Mr Muldoon, the very man responsible for the death of her nephew, she feels compelled to shake his hand. There is a sadness about this: that Pat has not grasped that her struggle and that of Muldoon are no longer the same, and that he warrants neither her sacrifice not her support.

The ripple carries on to demonstrate how little people learn from even the most recent tragedies and mistakes: through Quinn Carney, who leaves the IRA to raise his family, and his brother Seamus who is executed for talking too much. As the action unfolds, we see their sons and nephews struggling with the same questions over allegiance and identity – with Declan on his way to becoming another loose-lipped casualty.

There are echoes – in the structure and mood of the play, its pastoral setting imbued with impending doom – of Butterworth’s last hit play, Jerusalem. The action takes place on a holiday with roots beyond the Christian, there are live animals on stage at various points, the same large cast of characters, and the same unfurling process, with the household literally waking up, adopting a festive mood and the winding down as the sense of foreboding mounts. It’s impossible not to make comparisons – something I found incredibly distracting first time round.

Butterworth weaves in echoes from literature, too – elements rising to the surface from Homer, from Steinbeck and from Celtic myths and placing what might seem to be a domestic tragedy on a grander stage. But it also places the much of the history being shared in the context of mythology, too: Aunt Pat’s generation has reached mythological status in the eyes of her great-nieces and nephews, the hunger strikers are martyrs in the eyes of the boys who idolise them and aspire to be a part of the myths themselves. But Muldoon and his gang represent something more real and dangerous than the myths being spun.

Unlike Jerusalem, this is an ensemble piece, and although Paddy Considine is ostensibly the star, no-one performer is allowed to dominate. There is almost perfect balance between the old and the young, worldly and innocent, male and female on stage, with standout performances from Dearbhla Molloy as feisty, foul-mouthed Aunt Pat, Tom Glynn-Carney as Declan and John Hodgkinson as Tom Kettle. It’s a giant of a play – not just in it length, but in the scope of what it addresses, the human relationship with history and hyperbole and how the art of storytelling – and the desire to create and participate in myths – skew our perspective of the world and its realities.

Despite its richness, I cannot agree with the ‘play of the year’s claims. Unusually for such a vibrantly realised piece, I didn’t feel for the characters, or wonder what happened to them the moment after the curtain fell. When tragedy strikes there is no wrench. Quinn and Caitlin’s love seemed obvious and commonplace to me, almost lazy plot writing. As a result, the Ferryman is neither the best show I’ve seen this year, nor the best new show. It’s thought-provoking and heartfelt, packing punches as well as producing laughs…but for me it lacked the emotional impact of, for argument’s sake, Jerusalem.

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Loot, Park Theatre

8/10

Possibly one of the most eagerly awaited elements of 2017’s celebration of Joe Orton was the uncensored production of his 1967 hit Loot. It could easily have been an academic exercise, but instead is hilarious, vibrant and deeply macabre.

Orton was known in his lifetime for being shocking – but 50 years have passed since then.  And yet, Loot still shocks – but not where it used to. It may be perfectly normal for Hal and Dennis to close with a lingering, passionate kiss in 2017, and the proposed menage with Fay may be fairly Jules et Jim, but Orton’s talent was in making his audience feel discomfort in ways that still hit home today. In Loot, the established order of things – which has probably not changed as much as we would have like it to since his death – is constantly questioned, challenged and found wanting.

Today, Loot shocks with its modernity. Written by a man who never got to update it over time, it should feel like a museum piece. Instead, it could almost be set in the here and now. The societal norms and trends Hal and Dennis are trying to buck don’t seem out of date. Anecdotes – such as Nurse Fay’s career killing off her patients – seem quite prophetic given that in the decades after Orton’s death cases of that nature received high-profile attention.

There is often discussion about how Orton’s plays should be performed – watching filmed versions of Orton’s plays from the 1970s is difficult because the lofty acting styles and the material don’t match. One of the challenges of performing his works and making them relatable has always been the fact that it’s farce written in quite elevated language. One of the reasons I suspect his plays work well now is that audiences have become used to TV shows like Blackadder which also pairs at times quite literary dialogue with farcical action. Graham Linehan’s sitcoms – notably Black Books and Father Ted – also came to mind as I watched, laughed, and stored away quotable quips for the future. The result is that unlike much work by his contemporaries, Orton’s voice feels modern.

In fact, watching Loot, you can’t help wondering whether had he lived – not just dodged his lover’s jealous hammer, but also the AIDs epidemic – the 1980s might have been Orton’s heyday.

An Orton Compendium: A Genius Like Us (A Portrait of Joe Orton)

In memory of the playwright Joe Orton, whose career ended in violent death 50 years ago, the BFI is showing a season of films of and about his work. Top of my to-see list was this compendium, which comprises a 1982 BBC documentary alongside clips showcasing some of the work referenced in the documentary – What the Butler Saw, which is also being shown as part of the season, with a Q&A by Lahr, Leonie Orton and Ken Cranham – and an excellent clip of Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid playing a scene from Entertaining Mr Sloane which made me wish I’d made it to see the 2009 production starring Mat Horne.

The main documentary works on several levels. First and foremost, it is an exploration of Orton, his life and death, and the people who knew him. Most of the screen time goes to Orton’s sister Leonie, biographer John Lahr and agent Peggy Ramsey as well as close friend Kenneth Williams. As a result, there’s little in the film that can’t be learnt by reading John Lahr’s biography Prick Up Your Ears. And yet, it’s the people who barely knew Orton that are most fascinating: the Islington librarian who can barely control his laughter as he describes Orton and Halliwell’s desecration of public property. The jolly publishers who betray every scrap of class prejudice they must have felt on meeting Orton for the first time in just a few minutes of chat. You get a sense of what it must have felt like to interact with Orton, and also what it must have felt like for him, attempting to enter circles presided over by the prejudiced. No wonder he had to cultivate unease and rebellion to get ahead.

The film is also a tantalising taste of documentaries past – the sort of thing I just about remember watching growing up. No slick editing or grinding repetition of recaps and soundbites, that blight today’s TV ‘documentaries’. Each subject is given space and time; they hesitate; they reflect; sometimes their words trail off and you learn as much about them as about their late lamented friend. It’s impossible, for example, not to like Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours, the Salvonis, and their simple acceptance of the two men as a couple – and one that would stick together no matter what. As Mr Salvoni repeats this sentiment about them sticking together, it’s as if he’s grasping for something else, perhaps something about love, that perhaps he can’t quite bring himself to say in this context. And yet, you know he gets it. Orton’s sister’s responses range in tone from cheeky wit when she is summing up her parents (“My father would have loved a greenhouse…but…he never aspired to that.”) to heartbreaking when she talks about the unhappiness of her childhood, or the gap her brother’s death left in her life – at that point, 15 years after it happened.

The Tempest, Barbican Theatre

7/10

The RSC’s latest production of The Tempest is causing quite a stir at the moment – even among those who don’t usually take an interest in the theatre. The reason is that this production incorporates ambitious uses of projection mapping and motion capture technology. The set – the wrecked hull of a ship – is augmented by vast, moving projections that transform it from rocking ship to turbulent undersea, to enchanted forest.

The effect is both captivating and frustrating. The audio visuals work best when they are bringing the sea and the island to life. I have never seen a more spectacular shipwreck scene, with a lifelike rocking of the ship and vivid images of bodies tumbling through the water are projected onto a cylinder onstage. Digital projection allows the landscape to shift from underwater to forest and back again – at times it was even like a magical underwater forest – everything you expect from a sorcerer’s island. Thanks to these projections, Prospero’s recreation of Ariel’s years in the pine tree becomes a scene of physical and emotional torture, in which we see Ariel once again imprisoned in its boughs – it’s also the only moment when this Prospero appears to be truly cruel. And yet, sometimes the effects feel overdone – Ariel’s hounds of hell were too much for me, the wedding masque was overlong and the digitally projected dresses on Juno & Friends were overkill.

Far more striking than the projections is the fact that Mark Quartley’s Ariel wears a mocap suit throughout, allowing his movements to be animated and enlarged into spirit manifestations. This works when he is enchanting Ferdinand in the guise of a sea nymph, and when he is presiding over the waters with an eagle’s wings. It works less so well when his spirit form is being projected onto a black flag flying above the stage – the suspension of disbelief, for me, was lost. Also, in spite of all the technology, Quartley’s Ariel never manages to be sufficiently ethereal. This might be down to the sinewy suit he wears, or the fact that his movements were boldly athletic rather than quick and lithe, but the overall effect was good but not great.

And this is where the production really falls down for me: the performances are solid but not great. I’ve seen two outstanding productions of The Tempest in the past decade – a previous RSC take starring Patrick Stewart and Dominic Dromgoole’s production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in which Tim McMullan and Fisayo Akinade were outstanding and Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox made my sides hurt from laughing.

Simon Russell Beale’s approach to performing Shakespeare has always thrilled me – the verse trips off his tongue as though the words had just formed in his head, making every scene feel like reality rather than drama. And yet, when it comes to Prospero, this ability becomes a weakness: Prospero is meant to be larger than life, especially in the early stages of the play, where he doesn’t have much stage time.

For me, at least, Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic characters. After all, the tempest is raging within him as well as around the island. SRB’s natural delivery means that he never manages to convey the very dramatic emotions – rage, obsession – that drive Prospero in the early stages of the play. He is more like Leonato preparing industriously for the arrival of his distinguished guests than a man hellbent on revenge. The crucial moment – and change of heart – that occurs when Ariel shames his master by saying that were he human he would pity the prisoners, loses its impact if Propsero has never been that angry to begin with.

Ultimately, it’s a production that has a lot of good things about it – but only the technology seems really fresh. Everything else, I felt I had seen before. Joe Shire – understudying Joe Dixon – seemed to relish the role of Caliban, but I found the production’s interpretation of Caliban too overtly troll-like for my taste. Shire really took to the role, though, and added his own nuance to Caliban’s pain and frustration – the final scene where he finally walks upright and strides into his cell with his Prospero’s broken staff won me over entirely. Simon Trinder’s Trinculo seemed to have walked out of an episode of The League of Gentleman and he and James Hayes as Stephano never really achieved the energy and chemistry I have seen in other productions. You leave not exactly disappointed, but with a sense of exciting possibilities left unfulfilled.

I Loved Lucy, Arts Theatre

I haven’t given this show a star rating, because it’s an odd one to review: a truly unspectacular show in itself, but with an outstanding central performance.

There’s a particular species of Hollywood or theatrical biography in which a well-loved female star is befriended by a much younger man, they become constant companions, and a claustrophobic, generally codependent relationship forms. The star is usually in the last decade or so of their life and the young man is invariably a fan struggling to make his way as a writer. The biographies are generally a combination of anecdotes, eccentricities. Start and loyal subject always seem to fall out when the star’s health really declines, often as the result of some pushing by family members concerned about undue influence and protective of The Will.

I Loved Lucy is based on one such biography. Patrick, our narrator, is a lifelong Lucille Ball fan who is lucky enough to be distantly related by marriage to her second husband, Gary Morton, which leads to him developing a friendship with the lady herself. Patrick plays backgammon, visits her in Hollywood, acts as her PA when she is New York, accompanies her to movies, and watches helplessly as she stumbles through her final TV series.

None of this is interesting. What is interesting is how perfectly Sandra Dickinson captures Ball – her voice, her energy, her biting wit. When Patrick starts tediously – and endlessly – recounting the plots of I Love Lucy episodes, Dickinson doesn’t roll her eyes. She stares at him, as if waiting for him to get over his bout of verbal diarrhoea. It’s little touches like this that make her performance so captivating- and worth watching. There’s also a healthy dose of vulnerability: mixed in with the big, impressive tales about her Hollywood friends is disappointment about the failure of her first marriage and the compromise of her second. Genuine or fabricated, Dickinson plays the conflict well.

The show drags somewhat. There are only so many Lucy anecdotes one can sit through before the novelty palls. The timeline is inconsistent both with history and within the  play itself. Patrick is not an enjoyable character or a particularly engaging narrator. The best he has to recommend him is that unlike many similar biographers he always had a steady job, career and life of his own away from his celebrity friend.

The Arts Theatre seems to specialise in this kind of biodrama – in the past it has put on shows about Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – and the performances are always well-attended so there must be a market for them. See it if you love Ball, or Dickinson, or both. Otherwise, see something else.

Common, Olivier Theatre

3/10

I’m afraid to say, I found Common uncommonly bad, fell asleep at one point and left at the interval feeling somewhat perplexed as the play appeared to have ended, but not finished. I realise not every first act ends with a cliffhanger, but they should, as a general rule, leave the audience wanting to know what happens next. That this one didn’t is the least of its problems.

What I could extract from the nonsense before me was that Mary is a foundling who gets slung out on her ear after having an affair with her adoptive sister, goes to London, makes some money whoring, gets knocked up and comes back to her country roots to take her long lost love Laura off to Boston to bring up baby. Along the way she spars with Laura’s brother, King, meets a boy with an allegedly possessed crow on his arm and does a lot of protesting about the enclosure laws that are about to come into force. The dialogue is awful. DC Moore has decided to draw comparisons between 19th Century peasants and sink estate youths – at least that’s the only plausible explanation I can dream up for writing a play in language that jumbles together complex archaic constructions with a touch of the Wurzels. The resulting effect is something akin to white noise punctuated with the word “fuck” at various intervals. Moore’s only strategy for raising the occasional laugh is to use phrases like “pissy pipe” and “furry hole”.

Lest we mistake this for a genuine play of the period, Moore makes certain to indicate that its influences are scrupulously contemporary. In a scene reminiscent of the coming-of-age ritual of many a Corrie/Emmerdale/Eastenders teenager, Mary abruptly announces “I’m pregnant!” mid-argument. People are constantly digging graves, and no-one watching really cares who died (or is about to). About 30 minutes in, I took a nap. The nightmare was that it was all still going when I awoke.

In fairness to Amy Downham (Mary), she was only standing in for Ann-Marie Duff, but her performance felt more like that of someone reading from a script they’ve read once or twice than one who believes in the character or story being portrayed. Perhaps she’s read the notices which, I understand, are no good, and given up on the play like the rest of us. Cush Jumbo, as Laura, does some acting and I must admit hers were the only lines and scenes I managed to remember after making my escape.

There are some positives. This play has an interval, allowing the imprudent ticket purchaser to escape after 90 minutes. I liked the set. The dusky skyline splattered with crows in flight is very striking, and I liked to focus on the distant, glowing horizon with its roofs and spires whenever the boredom got too much to bear. I was able to work out what sort of view I’ll get when I go to see Follies in September, and ponder what that set might be like. And I liked the costumes: Mary’s red riding outfit was very striking, and the Woodland Folk looked delightfully sinister.

But of course, when the play is so poor that all your joy comes from rustic rabbit heads, you know the production is in trouble.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

7/10

A transfer from the NT, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is the perfect Friday night show: ballsy, bawdy, full of fine performances and uplifting songs. Do go and see it – but don’t go  expecting much of a plot.

Given that the action revolves around wayward schoolgirls and choirs, comparisons with St Trinian’s  and Pitch Perfect are unavoidable. It’s true the show bears all the well-established hallmarks of a British caper movie, including a script that is high on fast-paced laughs and low on real action. We meet six convent schoolgirls from Oban, they tell us about their lives and do some naughty things, there’s a brief attempt at a plot as they go to Edinburgh for the day to attend a choir competition. There’s then a section where we peek behind the masks to see that one of the young hellraisers is dying, one is pregnant, one is in love with her best friend, and so forth. It’s a valuable teaching moment in Tory Britain: watching this, the inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells can learn that even people with ASBOs can experience personal growth.

Mixed in with all of this are some fantastic renditions of some rather everyday songs. For me, they evoked the peculiarity of being a teenager through the sort of middle-of-the-road music that seems to surround you when growing up. It’s that period where you start taking ownership of the music your parents play, still bound by their tastes as you reject your standards, getting ready to be your own person. I was a 15 year-old UB40 fan (thanks, dad). Our ladies love ELO.

So far, so what? Incredibly, though its premise is slight – this show lives or dies on its humour – the end result is an incredible ride. This is principally because of the dazzling wit of the script and outstanding performances by Dawn Sievewright, Frances Mayli McCann and Kirsty MacLaren in particular. The actors grab their roles with both hands and make the audience love them, managing to counteract some of the more cloying moments at the end with the sheer force of their charisma.

Best of all, it’s an entirely female-fuelled show, with occasional male roles being taken on by the leads, allowing us to see these characters only as the girls see them and – for once! – for all the men to be filtered through a female gaze.

 

To Barry Norman, my unlikely hero

Standing at the Tories Out! demo in central this afternoon, I learned that journalist, broadcaster and film critic Barry Norman had died. And my heart hurt.

There aren’t many people out there who inspire me, but if it hadn’t been for that man my love of cinema – real cinema – might never have developed and certainly wouldn’t have come about as early in my life as it did.

For the whole of the 1990s, Norman’s BBC TV show introduced me to films, directors and ways of thinking about film that I might never have accessed otherwise. He inspired me to seek out great cinema, follow careers read histories of film. Many of my favourite films I learned about from watching his show and I grew up desperately wanting his job, which in turn inspired me to document my thoughts about films and later on about plays.

So many of my early life decisions were inspired by this secret ambition: I wrote about films for my French A level coursework and took a film course in my first year at university because I wanted to look at film differently, with a critical eye. I hated that course – and yet it changed my way of thinking and absorbing art forever.

Since then, I have read, watched, written, spoken and listened widely about film. None of Norman’s successors ever came close in my esteem. There might have been others more literary, but none has had the same profound effect on my intellectual life. He has always remained my favourite film critic.

Thank you, Barry. Thank you so very much.

The Mentor, Vaudeville Theatre

5/10

I was excited to see this play. I have been longing to see F. Murray Abraham on stage for some years and what better opportunity than an intellectual play about the nature of art, writing and working in the Arts?

Well, a lot of things, really. The main problem is that while The Mentor boasts an excellent cast, it’s an insipid piece of work that doesn’t provide them with the kind of matter they can get their teeth into. Whether this is a fault of the writer (Daniel Kehlmann) or the translator (Christopher Hampton), or the famous fatal misalliance between British and German humour, the result is a polite B+ essay of a play which doesn’t give the cast room to shine.

Kehlmann draws some rather commonplace not-quite-conclusions about what it means to be a writer, to review art, to support art, and so forth. There are some neat little jokes about working in the Arts sector – all worth a polite titter. But the play trickles along like one of the less good chapters in an Alain de Botton book: mildly amusing, faintly familiar, but ultimately no that interesting.

The performances range from decent to very good. FMA doesn’t disappoint, but his role is basically a watered down – and slightly more charming – version of some of the terrifying roles he’s played on screen. It’s a role he could do in his sleep, and he stays on the professional side of phoning it in. Naturally, this is a disappointment, knowing that given better material, he could have done so much more. Jonathan Cullen brings some delightfully fussy details to Erwin, the arts administrator. None of this, however, is enough to really lift the play, and when Martin flings his Macbook (and play) into the lake, one can’t help wondering what trick of fate prevented Kehlmann from doing the same. The play ends, the cast smile, the audience applauds politely, and marvels at the tastelessness of the lone voice that bothers to shout “Bravo!”

Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

9/10

When I was a child, one of my aunts often used to sit me down to watch films starring Hayley Mills. If you grew up in a world where The Parent Trap starred Lindsay Lohan, then I should explain here that Hayley Mills was the daughter of a British film star, who became a child star in the 1960s. For me, one of the defining features of these films, most of which were made by Disney, was that they starred a distinctly British child surrounded by an American family. I was frustrated by the lack of backstory around this, especially in the film That Darn Cat! which even featured an older sister who was American, so I couldn’t even plausibly convince myself that the character’s parents had spent a chunk of time in the UK and recently return to the US.

What this digression has to do with the Almeida production of Hamlet that’s just transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, is the fact that Andrew Scott is the lone player with an Irish accent, while everyone else gives their best (and in some cases approximate) RSC delivery. This ends up being both a distraction and a revelation, because it’s hard not to wonder why he is different when the others are so much the same.

Scott’s delivery is what makes this production. Suddenly, lines which are usually soberly declaimed bubble forth like real, live speech. You get the impression that this Hamlet is thinking and feeling his words, rather than reading them off the backs of his eyes. The rhythms of Scott’s speech are a perfect match for Hamlet’s soliloquies. He makes the ravings of a madman make sense – and delivers them with a knowing humour that draws loud cackles from the audience. The fact that he feels real and the rest of the cast are Doing Shakespeare reinforces the fact that there might, as Polonius suggests, be method in his madness. Hamlet, despite losing his wits, is the only one who sees the world as it really is – a powerful message in the current political climate.

The only scene I didn’t enjoy as much was the “get thee to a nunnery” exchange with Ophelia, which is usually my favourite part of the play. The spirited delivery of the rest of the text muted its impact: and I am not going to complain.

It’s a modern Hamlet – the action takes place in 21st Century Denmark, some of the costumes could have been bought in Muji, and both CCTV and press footage are incorporated into the action in a way that seems entirely natural and appropriate. Whereas many other productions finagle modern elements into old plays to make awkward  parallels, this Hamlet fully – and comfortably – inhabits the modern world.

The direction is superb, and helps to expand some of the characters whose stage presence is too brief in the text. We see them going about their lives behind a screen while the main action takes place, giving us a sense of who they are even before they first speak. The same screen is also a subtle way of dealing with the distinctly unmodern streak of supernatural in the play – the dead inhabit the world beyond the screen.

As ever, I must make a brief pause in all this to hammer on about the male gaze and its ugly interruption of what is a stellar production. Why, should Ophelia (both sane and mad) feverishly wrap her legs around her brother Laertes and hump him as though she is Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually? I admire the form of Jessica Brown Findlay as much as the next person with a pulse, but really, I felt this was merely an excuse to get a young actor into an unnecessarily sexual pose.

I’m known for seriously disliking Hamlet. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s my least favourite Shakespearean tragedy. It’s always felt rather self indulgent to me – both in the way it is written and the way it is performed. I loathe its tendency to make even the finest of actors generally catching their breath a little before launching into the famous speeches. I’ve seen it four times since the age of 14, and managed to feel unmoved even when Michael Sheen brandished Yorick’s skull mere inches from my face. I can’t hep but lose my will half through the second act every time.

Except this time. This production not only has me wanting to purchase another ticket, but itching to revisit the text – something I haven’t bothered to do for at least 15 years. I think that warrants a Bravo all round.