Saturday, September 25, 2010

Passion at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar Warehouse begins its celebrations of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday with a staging of the composer’s 1994 musical, an emotionally complex piece based on the Italian film Passion D’Amore.

Giorgio (David Thaxton), a handsome young military officer, is in the midst of a consuming affair with Clara (Scarlett Strallen), a married Milanese woman, when he is posted to a remote mountain garrison.

Initially he finds this separation tortuous; he dreams of her and longs for her perfumed letters to arrive. Soon his gentle manner and bookish ways bring him to the attention of Fosca (Elena Roger), the colonel's invalid cousin. Being far from conventionally beautiful, a plain and sharp featured woman, Fosca has never been loved and her loneliness manifests itself in an intense burning for Giorgio. She throws herself at him both emotionally and, at times, physically. At first he is alarmed, repelled even, but there is something about the pureness and unbending quality of her love that comes to move him.

Elena Roger, returning to the Donmar following her Olivier Award-winning performance in Piaf, stands up to the challenge of playing a character as knotty as Fosca. She is at times both desperate and pathetic in the depth of her need, her emotions running out of control, yet Roger manages to balance out her character’s rather too frequent episodes of neurotic collapse with a clear-eyed pragmatism about the hand that life has dealt her.

Jamie Lloyd’s production brings an emotional potency to the piece while doing little to conceal quite how strange it is at times. There is something rather chilling and predatory about Fosca and the way she clings to Giorgio with an almost animal need. Her passion seems to have been building in her for years; it only took one kind deed to unlock it. Giorgio himself often appears to have very little to do with it so quickly and completely does she latch onto him.

Though Roger’s is the showier role, Thaxton is no less compelling as a man being slowly eroded by the heat of Fosca’s need. He does not shy away from showing how Giorgio’s acceptance of Fosca’s devotion comes at a considerable cost to him. Physically powerful in the opening scenes, he towers over the diminutive Roger but seems to shrink in stature as the story progresses, until finally he is left contorted and whimpering on the floor, broken.

Sondheim’s score lacks stand out numbers and is instead a work of layers and recurring motifs, its power slowly building. Lloyd’s production makes the most of the Donmar’s compact stage; the ensemble scenes are well handled, succinctly portraying the somewhat boorish atmosphere of the garrison, and it is strikingly designed, with a shimmering and beautiful set by Christopher Oram.

Yet there is something rather unsettling about the piece as a whole which Lloyd taps into and exploits; the abiding feeling is not one of love conquering insurmountable odds but something altogether darker and more ambiguous.

Reviewed for Theatermania

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Aliens at the Bush Theatre

Annie Baker’s The Aliens harks back to the slacker subgenre best encapsulated in the mid-1990s by the early films of Richard Linklater and the plays of Eric Bogosian; in fact, superficially at least, Baker's play brings to mind Clerks-era Kevin Smith - minus the rooftop hockey and the scatological excess.

The play, which debuted at New York’s Rattlestick Theatre earlier this year, is set in the yard behind a Vermont coffee shop. This is the place where thirty-something drop-outs Jasper and KJ spend their days, sitting and smoking and talking.

Though they once toyed with the idea of starting a band together – The Aliens was one of many band names they considered - Jasper is now intent on penning a Bukowski-influenced novel while KJ’s energies (if that’s not too strong a term) go into perfecting a better blend of shroom tea.

Theirs is a life of Beckettian repetition and stasis, punctured by occasional interruptions from Evan, a high school student who works at the coffee shop and is worried their presence will get him to trouble. Though he’s initially wary, a gentle friendship grows between them and they end up sitting in the yard together on the Fourth of July, eating brownies as fireworks explode on the other side of the fence.

There’s a measured and elegant quality to Baker’s writing, a precision; her dialogue is full of small silences punctuated by an occasional intense verbal volley (the need for frequent pauses in delivery is specified in the script). Yet in her own slow-burning way she conveys a strong sense of a parallel America, one driven by a different dream.

The play is compassionately directed by Peter Gill, who draws warm performances from Ralf Little, as KJ, and Mackenzie Crook, as Jasper. Both men manage to make these directionless and occasionally frustrating characters sympathetic and endearing, though at times it’s a delicate line; Crook’s Jasper is marginally the more enigmatic of two, hollow-cheeked and mentally tormented by his crazy sometime girlfriend, Andrea. But it’s Olly Alexander’s nervy, hesitant Evan who makes the strongest mark, quietly awestruck by his involvement with this pair of outsiders, never quite shaking off his adolescent awkwardness but nonetheless growing in confidence. There’s something incredibly tender about the glow of contentment on his face as he lights his first cigarette and plucks up the courage to call a girl he likes.

Lucy Osborne’s set has the audience seated almost on top of the performers in a well-realised recreation of the coffee shop’s grubby back yard, complete with trash cans, concrete floor and a corrugated iron wall over which the actors are occasionally required to haul themselves. Yet it’s oddly unclaustrophobic, despite the physical closeness – the nature of the Gill’s direction and the play itself ensures a level of emotional distance is maintained.

The play’s delicacy eventually works against it. It feels overstretched, something only enhanced by unnecessary interval, and while the narrative is not entirely empty of incident, its gentle aimlessness doesn’t entirely sustain it. The performances are the things that stick, along with the overall atmosphere of the piece, the unhurried pace, this feel for the people who are "not even near to being one of them", who are always destined to be on the wrong side of the fence to the parade and the cheers and the fireworks.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

National Youth Theatre: Relish

The trajectory is not an unfamiliar one. A talented young chef rises to prominence on the back of his skill and innovative thinking in the kitchen; he becomes rich and famous but also over-confident. He overextends himself, and though his cookery books are bestsellers, he also embarks on a number of ill-judged projects and product endorsements, losing sight of the passion and talent that his career was founded on.

Based on Ruth Cowen’s book of the same name, James Graham’s lively play for the National Youth Theatre charts the life of Alexis Soyer, arguably Britain’s first celebrity chef.

Fleeing to London following the French revolution, the young Alexis, gifted but also determined and hard-working, rises rapidly to become head chef at the newly opened Reform Club. But his success soon goes to his head. The word genius is bandied about and he believes it. He makes the error of thinking that he is indispensible, that the success of the Reform is down to him alone, and takes to berating club members who dare to request a little more pepper on their lamb.

The story is ripe with modern parallels and Graham’s playful if episodic script makes much of them. There are references to Masterchef and a more general commentary on contemporary celebrity. The play also includes irreverent portraits of Queen Victoria, Mary Seacole, Madame Tussaud and Florence Nightingale, the latter of whom is depicted as an utter egoist, a foul-tongued rump-slapper with little regard for the men under her care.

A lot of care has clearly gone into the look of Paul Roseby’s production. The two-level set successfully conveys the world of the kitchens below and the club above, with a little lift to show transition between the two. Though Soyer wears period costume, everyone else wears chefs’ whites, and the majority of props and costumes have been fashioned out of kitchen utensils. Queen Victoria’s skirts are a clinking carapace of whisks and ladles while Soyer’s prima ballerina lover wears a tutu emblazoned with washing up gloves. When the action shifts to the Crimea, one unfortunate soldier oozes innards in the form of a string of sausages.

James Walker is suitably charismatic as Soyer but the production is hampered by its sizeable cast. There are forty performers in all and while there are some scenes that benefit from this, more often than not the sheer volume of bodies makes for a cluttered, messy production. There is little room for connection between characters and the production takes a while to find its feet, the early scenes clogged and noisy. There are also more practical problems with vocal projection; some cast members are better at it than others and several lines of dialogue get swallowed up by the high-ceilinged space.

Things tighten up considerably in the second half; the narrative grip of Soyer’s story is allowed to take hold and there is genuine poignancy in the later scenes. The large ensemble cast is used more judiciously and there is space for some strong individual acting from both Walker and Hanna Morrish as his ill-fated wife, Emma. To use one of the food metaphors so prevalent in the play: it's a rich dish, one with rather too much going on but with a clarity of flavour that comes through in the end.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Deathtrap at the Noel Coward Theatre

In order to generate publicity for his 1959 thriller The Tingler the film director William Castle is supposed to have installed buzzers under the seats of certain cinemas in which the film was playing in order to give his audience a rather literal jolt.

From the way the women in front of me leapt into the air during a key moment in Matthew Warchus’ revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 comedy thriller, Deathtrap, it looked a lot like Castle had been tinkering with their chairs.

For the most part Warchus’ production is a slick and solid revival of a play that doesn't quite make the case for all the love that has been lavished on it. There are a couple of proper shocks but there’s also a constant flow of self-reference, which is amusing at first but becomes a little tedious towards the end.

The play begins with faded playwright Sidney Bruhl receiving a manuscript in the post from a former student. Bruhl hasn’t had a hit in years and has been living off his wife’s money so this play, a well-constructed, marketable “five-character, two-act thriller with laughs in all the right places,” is the kind of thing he might literally kill for. He invites the young writer to his Connecticut cottage to talk things through as his increasingly nervous wife, Myra, watches on, worried about what her husband might be driven to do.

The story that follows is stuffed with twists and bluffs and double crosses. Part of the joy comes in the element of surprise, in not seeing these turns and lurches coming (the programme urges the audience not to give things away and spoil it for others), so it’s difficult to discuss the plot further without divulging too much.

Levin’s play doubles as a pastiche of the genre it inhabits and the characters are forever pointing out how what’s happening would make a good play. In fact in the second act, one of them begins to write that very play, adding to the already thick layer of self-reference. The first half is rather talky and slow to get going but, once it’s been established that nothing is quite what it initially appears, Warchus maintains an admirably high level of tension (that fact that Bruhl’s home is strewn with weapons, theatrical souvenirs and antique finds, helps considerably in this regard).

Though it’s probably fair to assume that the meta elements of Levin’s play felt fresher when it was first staged, the constant commenting on its own structure, which begins as a fairly witty conceit, soon becomes an overused device, one that acknowledges but doesn’t compensate for the occasional weaknesses of the writing; it sometimes feels as if the play is not so much winking at the audience as winking at itself in a mirror just over their shoulder.

That said, Simon Russell Beale is predictably delightful as Bruhl; his timing is impeccable, each gesture and glance well-judged, and he gives the character a surprising level of emotional complexity, one perhaps not supplied by the writing. Glee’s Jonathan Groff is able enough as the young playwright, Clifford, respectful and eager but also clearly ambitious. Claire Skinner however seems ill at ease as Myra, her accent wavering, and Estelle Parsons casts asides any notion of nuance in her cameo as the psychic Swede, Helga ten Dorp.

Rob Howell’s beamed barn-like set is impressive and full of shadows, an effect heightened during the inevitable climactic thunderstorm. But though the production as a whole is undemanding and fun, it can feel a bit overstretched and at times a bit self-satisfied; its entertaining nature however helps override some of these niggles.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Pieces of Vincent at the Arcola

David Watson’s new play is one of fragments. Like Cornelia Parker’s exploding shed it is a thing of disarray, its pieces flung to the four corners of the room.

The play takes the form of four seemingly unconnected strands. A music teacher harbours strong feelings for his young student. A woman deals with an emotional appeal from her drifter of an ex. Two Birmingham lads discuss their discontent over a box of fried chicken. An Irish police officer goes to deliver bad news and ends up revisiting his own past.

Es Devlin’s design has an inside-out quality: the audience is seated on cushions in the middle of the theatre and the action plays out around them. This necessitates a degree of swiveling in order to follow the scene changes as the actors perform behind gauzy screens onto which film is also projected. These projections are initially compelling, placing the audience in the back seat of a car or in a park watching children cycle past, but director Clare Lizzimore never completely integrates the technically inventive aspects of the production with the play itself.

The design does initially heighten the fragmented nature of the play, the disruption and scattering caused by a single random yet devastating event, but there is often an underlying sense of squabble between the writing and the method of presentation. This is particularly true of a visually striking sequence set on the Millennium Bridge, where the time-delayed footage overwhelms the words spoken. And from a purely practical perspective there are some real problems with sightlines (a number of people sitting in the corner closest to the theatre’s entrance had to stand on more than one occasion in order to see what was going on).

The performances are however strong throughout, particularly that of Sian Clifford (who also did great work in the Arcola’s recent production of The Road to Mecca) as Rachel, a woman coping with the unexpected return and then the equally sudden loss of her boyfriend, Vincent, and from Kevin McMonagle as John, the policeman shadowed by his own grief. Adam Best’s Vincent gets a little lost in comparison, though this is as more to do with the way the role is written than with his performance.

In Watson’s previous play, Flight Path, the older characters felt the least well-developed but here the opposite is true. Robin Soans’ music teacher is an intriguing and enigmatic character and Vincent’s grandmother, superbly played Dearbhla Molloy, comes fully to life in her one brief scene. The inclusion of the character of the young terrorist almost seems like an afterthought in comparison and Watson’s final twist feels both abrupt and unnecessary; the play is actually stronger when it’s more opaque and less willing to explain itself.

Monday, September 06, 2010

How to be an Other Woman at the Gate

Based on a short story from Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self Help, Natalie Abrahami’s production is atmospheric, inventive and full of the language of film and fantasy.

The original story was written as a set of wry instructions and Abrahami retains that device. The ‘you’ of the narrative is Charlene, a twentysomething New Yorker working in an unsatisfying job as a secretary who falls for a man who does not reveal he is married until the requisite number of dates has taken place (“four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums”) and they are lying in bed together.

Though initially excited by the idea of having an affair, Charlene realises that in becoming a mistress she has, in a sense, become someone else, someone other than herself, a stock character: the Other Woman. The journey of her relationship is a deeply familiar one: erotic and illicit but ultimately unsatisfying. She’s left dancing on her own on New Year’s Eve and is constantly haunted by the presence of the unseen wife, the skier and list-maker of the bed-side photo. Charlene reaches the point where she is seeing her, the wife, the other other woman, everywhere she goes.

By having four actresses play the character of Charlene the production emphasises the distance inherent in Moore’s second person prose. Charlene is both an individual and an everywoman, an archetype. This is heightened by the fact that the performers are all dressed in the black-skirt-and-white-shirt combo of retail assistants, glossy and anonymous, the uniform of transaction; one by one they take Charlene’s expensive beige raincoat and slide their arms into the sleeves, getting a feel of this new skin, grown women playing dress-up. The man, the lover, remains equally familiar yet also absent, a construction, plucked from the pages of a magazine or from the cinema screen, with his scarf draped over his shoulders and his eyes permanently shaded by his trilby. Again the four actresses take turns to play him with Cath Whitefield making the most convincing transition, capturing the stance and manner of this cut-out lover.

Where the production really excels is in its evocation of a particular mid-80s atmosphere. Samal Blak’s simple but versatile set is all black and chrome with an array of high-heeled shoes dotted around the stage that alternatively stand in for lamps, telephones and ashtrays. The lighting is low and smoky and the chosen music (as ever at the Gate) is spot on. The soundtrack is a smooth succession of synth and sax, Sade and Sheena Easton; the choreography meanwhile veers from the slinky and erotic to the comic, the New Year’s Eve nightclub scene a strong example of the latter.

While Abrahami’s production is stylish, well-crafted and filled with little moments of charm and wit, it sometimes dilutes the crispness of the source story and there is always a slight underlying sense that it is wearing a coat that it’s not quite comfortable in.

Reviewed for musicOMH