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Category: Theatre (page 1 of 2)

The York Realist

Despite having a keen interest in this play with its North Yorkshire setting (I grew up not far from York), I have never seen or read it.  My expectations were high as the reviews had been glowing, and I had taken part in one of the Donmar’s Open Workshops on it the morning of the day I had seen it

– and a big plug here for the Workshop which was excellent and a huge thank you to Lynette Linton for running it with such infectious enthusiasm –

but I have to say ultimately I was left slightly disappointed, without quite being able to put my finger on why.  I know that the 2002 Royal Court production of it, directed by  the playwright Peter Gill, was half an hour longer than this, despite no changes to the text.  (At that time it received very mixed reviews.)  It is mostly a realistic play set in the kitchen and main room of a Yorkshire farmhouse, in 1962, and it is peopled with the family and local community.  It is framed by a beautiful timeslip and is not a long play, short enough that I wondered if it could have done without the mid-point interval to keep it burning.

Perhaps it is too subtle; perhaps it needs more than one viewing or reading.  The actors are uniformly excellent, but even so Jonathan Bailey and Ben Batt, the development of whose love for each other the play charts, are powerful players.  The former a Southerner, the latter a man of the land which surrounds the cottage (Batt’s thrice repetition of “I live here” is profoundly moving), the play slightly subverts expectations in the way the men behave with each other. Even saying that, though, there is a flicker of emotion across Batt’s face as George leaves to go upstairs with John which, not visible to a lot of the audience, showed him not being all he seemed to be.  As George is playing a part in the York Mystery plays on which John, up from London, is the Assistant Director  – and indeed John emphasises what a good actor George is in the Plays –  that flicker of emotion is therefore perhaps a telling moment.

It is a play in which much action and passing of time are not experienced directly by the audience. The Mystery Plays, which could be the unwitnessed core of the play, didn’t overshadow it enough for me.  The family are united in their pleasure of seeing the Plays when they return to the cottage, and George quotes a couple of lines from it at the very end (which I didn’t hear clearly).  We know George’s character in the Plays is one who torments Jesus, which seems at odd with his “real” self. For anyone not knowing anything about the Mystery Plays, then the point of them just seems prosaically to get John to meet George.

This is not a play of symbolism as such.  It looks to class, sexuality, conformity, change, fear and questions where we find happiness. It is left up to the audience to fill in gaps.  No character is simplistic or easy to analyse.  Yet, as I write this I keep coming back to the thought that it is too subtle for one viewing.  Ben Batt has found his George from the text and he gives so much, some of which is almost too painful to watch on stage.  He becomes George on stage, having evolved through rehearsal and continuing to do so through public performance. This thought leaves me wondering if the text of the play as a whole, like the love it contains, has been left not fully grown.

Fanny and Alexander

(Probably best to skip/skim read the second paragraph)

My favourite film, in the sense that it is the film closest to my heart and affects me on a personal level like no other, is Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.

Scandinavian 19th century drama has fascinated me since I studied Drama at university, and my love of it led me into the theatre and film world of Bergman. In my twenties I had a tendency (as many others) to get obsessive, and I duly did with the films of Bergman.  (I was partly “cured” by attending pretty much every film in a National Film Theatre [as was] Bergmann retrospective years ago and quickly realised what’s too much of a good thing.)  Bergman’s films capture life (and death) as I understand it and as I want it to be.  Fanny and Alexander, his swansong, was the film he made to retire from directing film.  I have seen the cinema three hour version many times, and only once the original five hours plus TV version (now unavailable in UK, although I do have it on video and I can’t get our ancient unused video player to work).  I also saw Bergman’s own directed Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Barbican in 2003 with Pernilla August, who plays Maj in Fanny and Alexander.

I could go on and on and on…and on, so in summary: I’m fascinated with 19th century Scandinavian drama, the life and works of Ingmar Bergman, and therefore Fanny and Alexander is my desert island film. Being in a quandary as to whether to book to see this stage adaptation of it at the Old Vic, I twittered something to that effect, and a quiet Irish lady asked me why would I pass the opportunity to see the great Penelope Wilton on stage….

Why indeed? And what a fool I would have been to pass it.

In a nutshell, to save you reading any further, I absolutely loved it.

Of course Penelope Wilton as Helena Ekdahl, the Grandmother and core of the Ekdahl family whose story this is, was stupendous and held the stage and audience with barely the raising of an eyebrow.  I learned only recently that Gunn Wallgrenn, one of Sweden’s greatest actors who played the part of  Helena in the film was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after finishing filming and died the following year, which adds huge poignancy to her performance. Penelope Wilton is very wonderfully different, as are all the actors.  I had been afraid that a stage interpretation of the film would weaken it for me, but the story is so strong and the acting at the Old Vic so excellent, it passed my critical test of fire.  And the actors who played Fanny and Alexander were extraordinary.  They are on stage for much of the the three hours.   Of the four child casts, we saw Misha Handley as Alexander who has a large speaking part.  Katie Simons was Fanny, younger and with less speaking but I watched her witnessing a scene where Alexander battles with his Bishop stepfather, and saw her quietly give such natural and convincing facial expressions.  They both gave the adults a run for their money.

What the stage version could never replicate is the visual beauty of the film, its sumptuousness and its austerity, and wisely they had made a virtue of this in Tom Pye’s design with Alex Baranowski’s lighting. The second act in a stylised box for the Bishop’s harsh house worked particularly well.  I really liked Stephen Beresford’s adaptation idea to punctuate the action simply with recited lists of the food that the Ekdahl’s eat which is so lavishly visualised in the film.

There were moments I don’t remember from the film which must have been taken from the television original.  There was much cut, but nothing that bothered me.  The last act is perhaps the least successful, and if I have a criticism it is that the grotesque, fantastic magic of it in the film could have had a more engaging theatrical visual language.  There are effective stage illusions but I felt they were not pushed far enough. It could have been truly breathtaking.

I haven’t touched on its ideas and portrayal of the relationship between actors  and the theatre, with life itself.  Maybe another blog post.  To finish here, Fanny and Alexander fills me with awe and wonder, if you’ll forgive that overused phrase. The fullness of life bursts out of it: the joy and pain of family, the suffering from death and loneliness, the agony of self loathing and the damage that causes, the necessity of laughter and of humour in all things, and a mixing of religion, superstition and magic into something “other”.  It offers the mystery of what it means to be human

I Need A Job (Again)

I really need a job from March 26th.  I’m clean and tidy, can use a knife and fork and tie my own shoelaces.

All  offers and suggestions gratefully received.

Anything involving writing and/or the theatre would make me too happy for words.

Beginning 2

I know I could set the cat amongst the pigeons with the above photo having added lettuce and lemon, but I could not find a photo I could use with just the fingers and bread.  I could have gone out and bought the ingredients for a photo shoot in my kitchen….but it’s cold outside.  (Shame on me for not having any already in the freezer and this being north-east London I only have wholegrain bread)

I’m still riding high on my new job which is working backstage on

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Job Started

Three days of observing and then thrown in at the deep end for the Dress rehearsal on Saturday.  Made mistakes but kept calm and quiet, so no problems.  I suspect everyone thinks I know a lot more than I do but I am going to take the opportunity to learn as much as I can.

The play is wonderful.  I cried through two run-throughs. (I then got home and burst into tears at the end of the TV Little Women adaptation – I’m very emotional at the moment).  It’s about loneliness and connecting, and the actors are so good it’s not like watching actors – just people.  The characters are unusual in the sense you rarely see the thoughts and feelings they convey here, but they are so ordinary there must be thousands of (real) people like them.  I both identify strongly (painfully!) with them but the play has also made me question my own assumptions.  I think it will get richer every time I see it. And it seems a great company of people.  Everyone is really friendly and it feels like there’s no hierarchy (which strictly there isn’t in the theatre).

First preview tonight and my second time doing my job.

(I wish the photo above was my own – sadly not)


One million years ago I came down to London from my home town in Yorkshire and began to work in the theatres of London’s West End, working a followspot (the moving spotlight you see on actors).  My first job was at the Victoria Palace on High Society, Richard Eyre’s mixing of The Philadelphia Story (play/film) and High Society (film).

Later I got a job on the London production of Sondheim’s Follies at the Shaftsbury Theatre with Diana Rigg, Daniel Massey, David Healy and Julia Mckenzie.  The first time I saw it, when the music started (“Hey up there”) and the ghosts of the Weismann Girls appeared,

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Hamlet Round 2

I saw this first at the Almeida  (see review here)  and was above the side of the stage so missed seeing all of the action.  So I decided to go again to its West End transfer as it is at the Harold Pinter which is a relatively small West End theatre.

I am astounded that once again I sat for 3 hours and 40 minutes utterly captivated.  I love Shakespeare but I never sit through a performance without my mind wandering at some points.  But here, no.  I listened to every word.  Time stopped and it was only the beginnings of leg cramp that brought me round at the first interval.  Juliet Stevenson has been replaced as Gertrude by Derbhle Crotty (Irish, like Scott), whom I though was even better.  More warmer and maternal, yet still a queen.  I was bowled over by Jessica Brown Findlay as Ophelia, and every time she was on stage interacting with Andrew Scott’s Hamlet my stomach clenched with suppressed emotion.

I rarely lose myself in anything.  I can always stand back from myself and objectively analyse my emotions (I’ll tell my therapist).  This was one of the rare instances when I could not separate my feelings from what I was watching.  I cannot say why this production of this play moves me so much; brings me to tears that I cannot explain.  But it does and I am glad of it.

Girl From The North Country

Well I didn’t know that’s a Bob Dylan song.  In fact I knew nothing about this play with music – as I’d call it rather, than a musical – till I got in my seat and the actors came on stage.

I’d literally got off a train from Yorkshire, jumped on a bus which got stuck at temporary traffic lights and got into my seat with about a minute before it started.  Didn’t even have time to go to the toilet – fortunately I held on, unlike the incident at the Royal Opera House some years back but that’s another story.

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Sweet Bird Of Youth

And so to Chichester and back in a day for a matinee of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play.  Before I go any  further I have to confess to not being a particular fan of Williams’ plays, though I understand their appeal. I didn’t know this play at all, was vaguely aware it was written when he was filling himself with high levels of alcohol and drugs, and that it is regarded as somewhat secondary to Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.

Well I have to agree that the play has weaknesses but Jonatahn Kent’s production absolutely plays to its strengths and I found myself held by it  from start to finish.

I don’t think Chichester’s thrust stage is the easiest performing area for the play, but it is a brave decision to do it  in the main house because it is not a crowd-puller;  it is a thoughtful choice in Daniel Evans’ first season as Artistic Director.   Anthony Ward’s beautiful design is in keeps an intimacy at eye level but dominating above is a strange cloud/shroud-like construction.  Sitting at the side of the stage where I was, you are aware of its length,  However from the front it is foreshortened and dominates ominously and almost claustrophobically.  Ward uses tall shutters at the back in such a way that their colour, movement and Mark Henderson’s light, on and through them, avoids this design as cliche.

The structure of the play is problematic.  It begins with what are basically two two-hander scenes for the lead actors in which very little happens.  The energy then switches as the setting broadens its social scope. The second half has a lot more characters, none of whom are drawn with much depth and  most of whom have only short scenes of dialogue.  There is also a broader political element here which for me doesn’t quite mesh with the overall plot.

So it seems to me that the two lead actors have to be the glue to hold the piece, and Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J. Smith absolutely succeed.  I have to admit being a little weary of the tragic faded actress character which too easily can become caricature.   What I really admired about Gay Harden and Smith was that they don’t overplay The Princess  and Chance.  Instead they have created two people who feel reachable.  I believed in them both.  Despite the Princess’s regular reference to them both being monsters, their tragedy was in that they were both quite human.  Gay Harden’s Princess has accepted her fate – got out while the going is good – but despite her character’s alcohol intake and ability to forget what she wants to, her performance never falls into melodrama.  Smith has a dull but not dead look in his eyes, and he shows the boy that Chance started out as, as still being there within him.  Part of his tragedy is his inability to see it’s not just The Princess but also some of his home townspeople still care for this prodigal son.  In the second half, a simmering violent tension builds but does not explode directly around the drunken Chance as I expected. It is Boss Finley’s (very well played by Richard Cordery) televised racist rally, based in reality, that is a shocking climax, shown on lowered small video screens around the auditorium, so that the audience has the chance to get watch the speech at one remove, and then powerfully witness first-hand the following onstage beating.

The last scene is weak but again Gay Harden and Smith hold it.  The tragedy is as quiet as she shuts the door on her final exit.  Chance’s final moments are arresting and very moving in a beautiful stage picture.

Reflecting on the play in hindsight, its inconsistencies  and weaknesses in plot, structure and characterisation become more obvious.   This fine production sidelines them and  mines the depths of this flawed, fascinating play.




Life Of Galileo

Joe Wright’s production of Brecht’s Life of Galileo could so easily have been a disastrous overload of director-led ideas.  Instead Wright (as always) has kept the text as a foundation for his interpretation and held his ever -inventive stream of audio and visual delights in tight check.  It really works.

I have not read or seen the play before and was aware that the script has a lot of scientific explanation and, especially towards the end, is slightly hectoring in conveying its arguments. Nevertheless the performances from its very talented, committed ensemble of actors brought it alive and held my attention throughout.  It’s easy to sit back and enjoy actors playing lots of different parts, but as part of  their craft it’s damn hard work. They did an amazing job. And in so doing I realised what a fascinating play this is.

Brecht’s following of the idea of alienation – keeping the audience’s engagement as distant as possible so that it is intellectual rather than emotional – can lay traps for a director.  It seems easy to throw in lots of theatrical estranging devices but the result can be irrelevant novelty.  It’s  tempting to swamp a weak script with stage business to keep the audience’s attention, but the fact that the production’s inventiveness supported the text upheld the strength and indeed importance of the text.  The overhead mini planetarium was not constantly used, so when the projections on it did flow they were effective, especially at the very end of the play.  The Chemical Brothers’  music was both loud and quiet, creating energy and a poignancy which I didn’t expect.  Wright uses puppets, lighting, masks and his wheel-shaped stage (some audience members lie on cushions in the middle of the performing area and look particularly alienated in their discomfort) and it all gels beautifully.

The play is not a simple biography or history lesson, and it is passionate in its ideas and arguments of scientific responsibility, reason’s relationship with faith, the use of science in power and the dangers of oppression.  The relationship of science, superstition and religion was very different in Galileo’s time than today.  The Church had a complex relationship with science which arguably we have lost now.  But as I watched a scene in which the Pope, wearing only white underpants is gradually dressed into full officiating attire, I remembered Pope Francis’ “gift” of his encyclical on the protection of the environment to Trump the day before – so nothing relevant there…