Tuesday, 30 September 2008


Wyndham's Theatre
27 September 2008

Branagh's back - and it's magnificent

I always think that the best acting performances are when it doesn’t look like acting. Instead it’s as if you are peeking through a window and taking a sneaky look at a slice of someone else’s life. And this is exactly what I felt when watching Kenneth Branagh in the title role of Chekov’s Ivanov.

Tom Stoppard's new version of the Russian’s early play, directed by Michael Grandage is also a fine example of something that is not just your average revival of an old play, trotting out the words with no new insight or surprise. This is an eye-opening version that makes you realise that some 19th century problems still have resonance today and probably always will. It also shows the dual nature of life and how its tragedy and comedy do not just sit side by side, the co-exist.

And it wasn’t just the references to the financial situation that brought knowing laughter from the audience, it’s the portrayal of a man with problems that could easily be transferred to the 21st century.

Ivanov has been described as “Hamlet with a mid-life crisis” and indeed there are many references to the Dane throughout the play.

But instead of being paranoid about his mother’s new husband, this man is heavily in debt and has fallen out of love with his sick wife and is instead attracted to a younger woman.

Every night he escapes to his neighbours, the Lebedevs to whom he owes money. But this only makes him feel more guilty when Sasha (Andrea Riseborough), their 20-year-old daughter, throws herself at him.
The play deals with both his heroic and un-heroic struggle to do something about the mess his life has sunk into. He therefore has an “everyman” quality about him, having to deal with problems that are subjects that still have to be dealt with today.

Kenneth Branagh brilliantly deals with what is essentially the breakdown of a man in a performance that is both moving and hilarious at the same time. You really feel for him at the same time as wanting to shake him. However, you also know that he feels what he feels and there is nothing that anyone can do to get him out of and as such is an accurate portrayal of what is essentially a mental illness.

Basically, his dissatisfaction with life is shown to be more than just boredom. The real tedium and monotony of life are portrayed brilliantly by the other characters when they assemble in Zinaida’s (Sylvestra Le Touzel) living room to play cards, sip vodka, gossip and complain about the monotony of their lives. But against all this, Ivanov’s situation is clearly more serious and shows the difference between feeling a bit low and being depressed, something that can be very difficult to grasp.

He is also, for the most part, honest about his feelings although this doesn’t do him any good either. In fact, in the end he goes from hero to zero in a trice as when he fails in his efforts to do the right thing he ends up doing it wrong.
It all sounds a bit depressing doesn’t it? But the play is, in fact, hilarious and this is largely due to Tom Stoppard’s fantastic adaptation which brings the language right up to date while still setting it in the late 19th century. It is a lesson in how people’s problems don’t change but also shows the humour in Chekhov and as his aim was to “show life plain”, it shows the humour in life as well. It is a stark reminder that you can be utterly ludicrous but tragic at the same time – a nod towards today’s celebrity culture as well! Branagh’s Ivanov knows that he is being ridiculous, but his feelings of guilt and shame are still palpable.

And just like life and just like all the best plays, you can swing from laughter to despair in a second and there is no better example of this than the final scene. And Branagh does it all naturally with superb timing.
The play goes some way to answering the question of whether Chekhov’s plays are comedies. The answer to this, as Stoppard eloquently puts in the programme is, “Is life?” and what’s clear in this, is that in showing this particular slice of life, well then yes, life is!

Great as he is, this production isn’t all about Branagh though. It’s an excellent cast with fine performances from the aforementioned Sylvestra Le Touzel as the domineering Zinaida, Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin and Malcolm Sinclair as Shabelsky to name just three.

And what can you say about the lovely Gina McKee who plays his tubercular wife Anna Petrovna, a woman who in this portrayal is as forlorn as she is beautiful and I want to be as beautiful as Gina McKee. Mr FB says yes, she's beautiful but she’s a stick. I tell you - I really wouldn't mind being a beautiful stick. And I really, really wouldn’t mind seeing this fantastic production again! It’s the perfect example of everything that theatre should be.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

West Side Story

Milton Keynes Theatre
16 September 2008

50 years young!

It’s been 50 years since West Side Story hit the stage, and I swear that, as a show, it just gets better and better with a soaring and emotional score that fills your heart and Jerome Robbins original choreography lovingly reproduced and truly standing the test of time.

It’s therefore always a worry, when you go and see a production of a show that you love, that it will live up to your expectations and thankfully, this anniversary show did – mostly!

It is essentially a very good production. The dancing is top notch, especially from the men. Robbins’ powerful balletic moves capture the mixture of youthful exuberance with underlying violence and this company’s troupe of men really do it justice.

And there are also excellent voices throughout, which made me bask in the wonderful music and yearn to get up on the stage and join in!

The set is versatile, if a little noisy at times, and the interaction between the Jets and the Sharks, and the animosity between incomers and “natives” made me really mindful that we face the same problems today.

My main bug bear with this production was that I didn’t really “get” Tony and Maria. The show itself doesn’t really give a lot of explanation as to why they fall for each other so quickly, you just have to accept that it is a lightening bolt/love at first sight moment, but it is possible to accept it – I’ve done it before! The fact is that it’s easier to accept if the chemistry between the two is so electric that you can’t fail to see why they were attracted to each other. The problem here was that there really wasn’t much of a connection between the two of them.

Daniel Koek as Tony has a beautiful singing voice, really powerful with a gorgeous tone that I could have listened to all night – but he looked much older than Maria and dressed a bit like an insurance clerk, or, as one audience member said more insightfully, a teacher. Now, I’m not saying that people can’t fall in love with insurance clerks and teachers instantly, I’m sure you can, but when your Maria looks about 13, the relationship looks and feels a little inappropriate!

Sofia Escobar as Maria also had a fantastic voice and looked really sweet, but I wasn’t convinced that she loved Tony. It wasn’t that she wasn’t trying, it just wasn’t there. Sometimes actors go well together, sometimes they don’t, it’s not their fault. I’m sure that individually they are a great Tony and Maria but together they were in their own little worlds and not each others.

But while I was a little disappointed by the main pairing, the show itself is a wonderful night with a young, exuberant and talented cast. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Jayde Westaby as Anita and, after seeing Clive Francis in The Dresser at the Watford Palace last week, was delighted to see that his young son Harry was following in his talented footsteps in the role of Baby John.

All in all, it’s a good production of a classic, and despite some casting deficiencies, it still shows West Side Story up as a show that makes many newer musicals look thin and uninspiring.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Dresser

Watford Palace
9 September 2008

The show must go on

I love backstage plays and plays within plays. From Kiss Me Kate and Noises Off to the more metadramatic Rosencrantz and Guildernstern and Travesties of Tom Stoppard, I enjoy the analysis of actors and their craft both with and without an audience and discissions about whether therefore, we are all acting in some way and as such are all audiences to someone.

Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser is a totally absorbing look at a slice of backstage life in a provincial World War II theatre as an actor/manager strives to take theatre the length and breadth of war torn Britain.

It focuses on an egocentric actor/manager known as Sir, although he clearly hasn’t been given a Knighthood as he constantly rails against those who have, and it looks at the relationships between him and his wife, the rest of the company and most importantly with his devoted dresser Norman.

As the play opens, Sir has been taken to hospital after apparently suffering some kind of breakdown. His wife, who is also the leading lady, and the stage manager Madge want to cancel that night’s performance of King Lear but Sir turns up having discharged himself and in a state of near collapse. The two women are even more determined to cancel but Norman is equally as determined that Sir should go on and we watch what happens as Norman persuades, cajoles and bullies his charge into making up, getting his costume on and making his way to the stage.

As Sir, Clive Francis brings the arrogant, infuriating and yet still likeable character alive in all its complexity. He mostly seems to be in a state of utter despair, driven by unknown forces and wallowing in it too. He can’t even remember his first line in Lear until the mere mention of a full house by Norman brings him to life. The whole play is based on Harwood’s own experiences as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit and it does seem to be a classic portrayal of the acting profession, someone riddled with “issues” and uncertainty and needing an audience to truly exist.

Graham Turner is superb as a camp Norman who plays a submissive and protective role when dealing with Sir, although is clearly still in control. Then when coming between his boss and the rest of the company he turns spiteful and defensive. It’s clear that just as Sir needs an audience, Norman needs Sir to give meaning to his life and at the mere suggestion of this not continuing, his insecurities flow out in a bitchy tirade. I found it to be a very moving performance.

Sarah Burger, who plays his wife in the eyes of all but the law, gets the frustration of an ageing leading lady still playing Cordelia exactly right while the unrequited love of Stage Manager Madge for her boss is palpable - but this is really Sir and Norman’s play and it is their central bond that is most absorbing. Cleverly, Harwood mirrors elements of the association between Lear and The Fool in this relationship too which makes this an ultimate play within a play.

Director Di Trevis manages the balance between comedy and pathos and I liked the way that Ashley Martin-Davis’ set showed us what was happening in the wings while we could also see the action on the stage where Lear was taking place, although the scene changes between the two were a little clumsy.

But this is nit-picking in what is a good and thoughtful night out at the theatre.