Follies, Olivier Theatre

10/10

If you are going to see Follies, be warned: this production is a tapestry so complex that at no point does the audience know where to look. Wherever the focus of a scene seems to be, there is always something else happening in the background or off to the side. You dare not focus for fear of missing some subtlety on the other side of the stage. I have seen it three times so far, and still feel I have not quite experienced the whole of it.

Follies has all the hallmarks of a great Sondheim show – that almost macabre dissection of human relationships which grips anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love. This particular production is also a tribute to resilient womanhood: from the opening strains of Beautiful Girls to the reprise at the end, the men play second fiddle: they are the plus ones, merely a part of the stories of these women. They mourn for former glories, grasp for emotional strength, hold handbags, watch from the shadows. The men wait and prevaricate.  The women dominate centre stage.

Everyone – and everything – in this show is superb. Not flawless – of which more later – but of a quality that is unlike anything else you will see. It is a perfect combination of material – which, although acknowledged to be problematic has been reworked expertly here – direction and performance and a testament to the sort of thing that can be achieved with publicly funded theatre. It’s unlikely that a show like this, at a scale of this kind, would not work commercially.

There are three types of song in this show: the showcase showstoppers (Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, Who’s That Woman, One More Kiss etc); dialogue songs that move the action along (Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, Don’t Look at Me, In Buddy’s Eyes Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You) and the follies themselves (You’e Gonna Love Tomorrow, Buddy’s Blues, Losing My Lind, The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, Live, Laugh, Love). These are performed to incredible effect by all concerned – the casting in most cases so perfect you cannot imagine each number being performed by anyone else or any other way.

Imelda Staunton is one of those performers whose work I admire so much its’ hard for me to be objective – and the combination  of her talent and Sondheim’s is intoxicating in the extreme. There’s no question she is fantastic as Sally Durant Plummer – possibly the least sympathetic character in the show. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes takes a frankly quite cloying – and at times lyrically repetitive, though it reveals some of Sally’s obsessive nature – song and turns it into one of the best musical moments of the show. Her voice breaks in all the right places – notably on the line “I’m still a princess” – and anyone who has experienced the warm beam of adoration will feel the emotional punch. It’s a scene to give you chills. Losing My Mind is often performed as a lovelorn ballad, but in Staunton’s hands it is become the battle cry of a woman scorned. Sally’s helplessness – her inability to know whether to brush her hair, drink her bourbon or stare wistfully into her vanity mirror – gives way to seething rage at the rejection she has experienced. When she sings “You said you loved me,” clutching her empty class, there is rage intermingled with her despair, her face is tense with it, the words “you bastard!” are almost implied. I got the sense that if Ben were stood before her that glass would be hastily smashed and thrust into his face. Her intense lingering gaze at the end of the number is not that of a woman lost – instead, it is reminiscent of a Hollywood ‘bunny boiler’. This is a woman who does not internalise her hurt, who seeks revenge on whoever is most accessible to her, as hinted at by the long, rageful phonecalls to her distant sons.

And yet, Staunton doesn’t give the show’s standout performance. That comes from Janie Dee – exceptional as fast-talking, sharp, brutal Phyllis. She’s elegant and relentless, delivering her one-liners to perfection without once stooping to ruffle her feathers. While the role of Sally offers room for interpretation, the role of Phyllis is so taut that the performer cannot miss a beat. Phyllis is the only character whose emotional epiphany doesn’t involve a breakdown, in fact, she emerges still calm, still collected, and triumphant. Dee is custodian of one of the finest numbers in the show – Could I Leave You – and performs it with a brilliance and gusto that leaves you on a high. #TeamPhyllis all the way!

I was lucky enough to attend the Platform with Janie Dee and Phillip Quast and got to ask them to reveal their favourite moments in the show. So many, too many to mention – everyone in Follies, after all, is a star. For me, that moment is Too Many Mornings – vocally the absolute peak of what this cast can do, pitched perfectly at that point where musical theatre and opera converge. Staunton and Quast execute it superbly – in my view it could not be perfected beyond what they have done.

 

 

 

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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.

Salome, Olivier Theatre

 

2/10

I have only myself to blame for the fact that I ended up sitting through Salome last night. I visited the NT website three times and decided it was not for me, before thinking “Oh, go on then…” For this, I am a fool.

Salome, in case the reference escapes you, is a Biblical tale. Salome, the favoured niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, causes the execution of John the Baptist by requesting his head on a platter as a reward for some particularly fine dancing. Author and director Yaël Farber‎ has taken this as a cue to produce something that is part political allegory, part interpretive dance, part performance art and all nonsense.

We are introduced to two Salomes. The narrator, old Salome, has been imprisoned under the temple. Young Salome doesn’t speak for most of the play, she just watches. Old Salome is at great pains for us to know that she wasn’t just a princess and the cause of John the Baptist’s ruin, she was a revolutionary in an occupied territory, and her story has been suppressed. John the Baptist wears nothing but some very tight underwear and speaks only in Hebrew, while the rest of the cast speak English. The subtitles for his lines are sometimes obscured by a giant ladder, which, depending on your interpretation, is either headed down to the dungeons or up to heaven. Sometimes it disappears and becomes a table, which is all well and good at a small theatre with a tight budget, but at the National it’s just indulgent. Jesus is a man in a loincloth who does interpretive dance and every now and then utters garbled pronouncements – a bit like the sort of ‘preachers’ you see outside Aldi on a Sunday afternoon.

In Farber’s interpretation, Salome is a revolutionary. Sexually abused by her uncle (Paul Chahidi – the high point of the show, more of him, please) she feels an affinity with the outsider John, and finds comfort in his teachings. John baptises her as one of his disciples and her decision to dance and to ask Herod for his head are all part of her plan to ensure he is martyred and remembered forever instead of kept forcibly alive in obscurity by Herod’s guards.

Farber seems to be trying to give a female perspective to the male-dominated stories from the Bible. And yet, there is a heavy dose of male gaze about this production. John baptises all his disciples fully clothed, except for Salome, who must first do a striptease and then submit to a sensual bath. From this point onwards, she frolics in an airy, transparent shift, frequently revealing her breasts. Breasts are lovely, but this seems a little unnecessary, to say the least. And somewhat unlikely behaviour for a character who gets raped about five times in 90 minutes. Her famous ‘dance’ consists mainly of rubbing her nipples and gurning. It feels like titillation, rather than appropriate nudity, and I certainly wouldn’t offer her anything unto half of all my kingdom for it.

The political allegory is strong in this one. The word occupation comes up a lot, often spoken a bit louder than the rest of the dialogue for the benefit of the dim ones at the back. In case there is any lingering doubt whatsoever with regard to the parallel being drawn here, Farber ensures that at one point the Hebrew soldiers arrive on stage armed with guns, adopt poses familiar from news footage, and talk about occupation and possession of land. HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?

The show is littered with the ridiculous. During one of the sexual abuse scenes, Herod gropes Salome while telling her that “Your saliva is the special sauce of my life” – possibly the worst line I have ever heard uttered in the Olivier and something that even the most negligent porn director would probably strike from a low-budget script.

Salome’s big draw is meant to be the stage direction, but I found it a bit crowded. There’s a lot going on. Any players who aren’t centre stage get involved in the interpretive dance, fanny about with drapes, or stand on a carousel and spin around the action. Every now and then they all gather around a table and mimic The Last Supper. It feels heavy handed and worthy – like those Eurovision songs that tell of the beauty and independence of some minor beleaguered state in an attempt to distract their more fortunate neighbours from the joys of glitter and lurex.

Fifteen minutes in, I’d had enough of heavily declaimed poetry, floating tablecloths and interpretive dance and was longing for the interval and blessed escape. Except that like most theatrical abominations these days, Salome has not interval. Of course not. Because then its victims might leave before the ordeal was quite done. I was trapped in the Olivier for a further 90 minutes. I knew how Salome felt in her dungeon, I can tell you.

It’s possible, of course, that this was a wonderful performance and I am merely more of an Old Testament Philistine than a New Testament revolutionary. The woman to my right wept when it really got going, and I think she was genuinely moved rather than bitterly regretful. However, take my experience as a warning, and do not buy a ticket to this show unless you can get an aisle seat.

Ugly Lies the Bone, Lyttleton Theatre

8/10

Jess is a US Army veteran, returned from Afghanistan with life-changing injuries. Scarred beyond recognition, she is getting used to a new face, a new body, and a new world of physical and emotional pain.

The action is split between Jess’s VR therapy sessions and her experiences at home. Reluctant to engage with her treatment, she hoodwinks her therapist into programming this world – which is meant to be a reflection of Jess’s own aspirations – in the image of her sister Kacie’s ‘dream board’. Here, she is encouraged to explore freedom of movement, to walk, to climb, to run. To escape her disabilities and her pain.

In the real world, Jess is navigating a landscape of a very different type, one that has recently changed forever. We discover that it’s not just Jess’s injuries that have changed her life for good – the shuttle programme has ended, leaving her hometown without a purpose, and her life choices have left her lonelier than she would like to be.

As the story begins, Jess is trying to avoid the outside world, hiding herself away from the guests at her welcome party and dismissing her sister Kacie’s efforts to draw her out of herself. The rest of the play is a heart-wrenching quest in search of the broken threads of a life that might have been – the teaching career she might have had; the man she might have married (played with brilliant awkwardness by Ralph Little).

Jess’s mistrust of new experiences is reflected in her interactions with her sister’s new boyfriend, welfare scrounger Kelvin (Kris Marshall) whom she suspects of nefarious intent.  Kelvin, who is not quite the man her sister dreamed of and probably not the best she could get, seems to embody the revised and imperfect future Jess sees stretching before her; one where she cannot choose the career she wants, or the lovers she wants, but must settle for what is available. And yet, despite his faults, Kelvin is not malicious and has both Jess and her sister’s interests at heart.

It’s not hard to make the comparison between Jess and her home country – or indeed our own – as she reels from the shock of her new circumstances and what they mean.  This is a play about change – and in particular the changes we can’t control. From the accidents that befall us, and the political decisions that impact our lives, to the unintended consequences of the choices we make. When change reshapes our lives, who understands? Who really loves our changed selves? Is it the people who look after us, or the people who remember us? Is true love remembering the version of us and our lives that we feel is most authentic, or accepting who we are, in the moment? These are the questions Jess has to ask.

It’s a difficult story to tell without tugging relentlessly on the heartstrings, but Lindsey Ferrentino manages to do it – and brilliantly so. Kate Fleetwood’s Jess surveys her surroundings with dry, sarcastic humour without ever becoming unsympathetic. The dialogue is witty, but with a stilted feel that reflects the occasional awkwardness of real conversations and real lives. If Ugly Lies the Bone were a Hollywood film, it would be heartwarming. Instead, it is reassuringly bittersweet. Jess’s therapy ends before she feels ready, and she learns that there is no Level 2. Her only choice is to start her climb again. In the outside world, she makes progress, but finds no answers. There is no happy ending here. Jess’s future remains precarious, her recovery unfinished. But perhaps now she has learned the acceptance she needs to start imagining her life all over again.