Sunday, 8 February 2009

Three Days of Rain

Apollo Theatre, London
7th February 2009 (Matinee)

Bring on the Rain!

Forget five days of snow, Jamie Lloyd’s engrossing production of Richard Greenberg’sThree Days of Rain took me well away from the travel difficulties of the past week!

Now, I’d better get something out of the way first. If you have read my review of The Common Pursuit at The Chocolate Factory last year, you will know that I have somewhat of a penchant for the lovely Nigel Harman (of Dennis in EastEnders fame!) and to be honest it was his appearance in this play that first attracted me into buying (sorry, BEGGING my husband to buy) the tickets.

To his credit, and my amazement, bless him, my long suffering spouse not only got us tickets, but got them in Row B where, if I wasn’t more socially aware, I could have reached out and squeezed his peachy cheeks! The temptation was great, I have to say!

I mention all this because I need you to know that while I find the Harman one of the most desirable men to walk the earth, I am always honest about his acting performance. Just being gorgeous doesn’t mean you can act, ( I won’t cite any cases here for legal reasons!) but thankfully, and in a totally un-biased way, Nigel CAN do the business!

In the end, the afternoon was a triumph, not just because we both really enjoyed the production, but, because after a very impressive performance, hubby has finally conceded that Nigel was, and I quote with trembling fingers “very good”. I thought he was a lot more than that frankly, but believe me, if you’ve heard what he’s said about him in the past, this represented a MAJOR change of heart!

Nigel was excellent and so were his two fellow cast members. The presence of the fantastic James McAvoy and the lesser known but equally impressive Lyndsey Marshal, completed a well matched and excellent trio that brought the world of the play to life and made for a more than satisfying afternoon!

So what’s the play actually about? Well, it basically explores how the private worlds and actions of one generation both affect and are reinterpreted by the next . The first act opens on a drab, long un-inhabited loft space in Manhatten in 1995. Into it walks James McAvoy as Walker who has found out that it was the place where his wealthy, but monosyllabic, architect father, Ned, lived and worked. Walker is reuniting with his sister Nan, played by Lyndsey Marshal, for the reading of their father’s will, to find out who will receive Ned’s main legacy - an iconic house designed with his late business partner Theo.

Joined by Theo’s son Pip, played by Harman, who gains more than expected from the will, they discuss all that has happened in the past and discover Ned’s diary which contains the mysterious words ‘three days of rain’, the only clue to the truth about their parents’ past, because sadly, Walker and Nan discover that the man who didn’t say much through speech, was no more forthcoming via the written word.

I don’t want to give away too much about what happens as it will spoil the entire thing for you, but suffice to say, in the second act the actors are in the same place but in 1960, where they play three different characters from the previous generation - both of their fathers and a mother - and we are given some sort of explanation as to what happened there, and why Ned might have written his will in such a way.

It’s basically a family drama, something irresistible to audiences and therefore writers alike! The children and their parents share some characteristics and not others, and in the second act you can see where the progeny came from in quite an Ibsen-esque “sins of the fathers” way, but without the syphilis!

I found the whole thing to be totally engrossing and not because I was staring at Nigel the whole time, it was the whole package that enthralled me! James McAvoy was brilliant as both the “troubled” Walker and the less forthcoming Ned, really bringing out the different problems and insecurities that both had. I think that without going into the nuances of his acting, the fact that I wanted to reach out and hug both, is testament to how he made me feel – and that’s what acting is all about!

I enjoyed Lyndsey Marshal’s performance as Nan and Lina as well, (despite my bristling when she hugged Nige!). Her measured and mostly calm Nan was a good contrast to the wilder, more unpredictable Lina but again you sympathised with both.

Nigel played Pip, an actor in the play who, ironically for Harman, is playing the eye candy in a TV soap. He is more brash and confident and gets most of the funny lines which he delivers with excellent timing. And I’m sorry about this but I have to say that he spends a fair bit of time getting wet in the rain and I couldn’t help my mind wandering and imagining him in the shower first thing in the morning! But back to his performance!

His second role, as Theo, is similar to that of Pip in the first act, but whereas Pip seems happy and comfortable in his chosen career, Theo’s frustration at his creative block is painfully palpable. And the fact that most of this happens in the rain is just a bonus!

The great thing about this production is that is provokes much thought and discussion about exactly what happened, and for someone like me, who always rather anally checks the times and dates mentioned by characters to make sure that they match up, it gives you much working out to do!

There are also so many echoes of the first act in the second that it makes you really want to see it again to makes sure that you get absolutely everything! In fact, yes, I think I really MUST see it again! And if maybe Nigel could remove a few more items of clothing when out in the rain .... then so much the better!! Sorry!


Royal National Theatre
3 January 2009

No gimmicks required!

After seeing seven pantos this season, and getting swept along by their unending cheeriness, the National Theatre’s production of Sophocles Oedipus was quite an antidote. Cheery it most certainly isn’t, but absorbing, emotional, tragic and generally fulfilling as a piece of theatre, it most certainly is!

There is a wonderful bitter sweet feeling of tragic inevitability. Bitter because the characters are heading towards their own destruction and there is nothing they, nor us, can do about it. And sweet because its content and structure is a perfect example of true dramatic tragedy.

Much of the success of Jonathan Kent’s production, as it is with any production of such a classic, is dependent on the performance of the tragic hero and Ralph Fiennes is a superb Oedipus. His disdainful arrogance at the start is brilliantly contrasted by his crumbling to a mere husk of a man as he slowly realises where he has come from and what it means.

No one stares quite so well as Fiennes – he literally looks right through to your soul. His eyes have always been amazing (remember Quiz Show!) it’s a real shame that he has to gauge them out in this!

Clare Higgins, as usual, is also outstanding as his ill-fated wife slash mother and her collapse as she recalls the horrors of her past is heart wrenching.

The chorus are a darkly and contemporarily dressed troupe who also often break into song, but not in a “let’s all sing a song about this” musical theatre way, but in tunes, created by Jonathan Dove, that enhance and contribute to the atmosphere.

I also loved the starkness and simplicity of Paul Brown’s set which meant that your attention wasn’t taken up by effects and extravagance, you just have to concentrate on the words. And in doing so, after 90 minutes straight through, you feel both exhausted and exhilarated.

It is a wonderful contrast not only to the lavishness, sparkle and glitz of panto but also to many other productions of the moment who need gimmicks, effects and lavish sets to draw people in.

If you just put on good plays with great actors you don’t need to mess about – and the full theatre at the National after a credit crunch Christmas proved it!

Robin Hood

Birmingham Hippodrome
21 December 2009 (Matinee)

In the hood!

I think we saved the best until last, without realising it of course! They say that in hard times people need glamour, and if this is true, then The Birmingham Hippodrome at Christmas is the place to be.

Robin Hood is a massive panto. Huge. It is the panto that the credit crunch forgot! And while you can easily argue that the small local pantomimes are best for sheer charm and effort, I can honestly say that if you throw enough money at something, and add an awful lot of sequins and sparkle, then the truly gargantuan pantomimes are just brilliant too – and they don’t come much better than this!

With firework displays, a robot, exciting magical illusions, glitz, glamour, fabulous musical numbers with excellent song and dance, and an amazing, if somewhat surprising ice skating number – with an ACTUAL ice rink (well done stage crew!) this show had everything that a family audience could possibly want!

John Barrowman is a wonderful and heroic Robin Hood who has far more boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm than I’m sure the actual folk-hero ever did! Barrowman is a seasoned performer, a fabulous musical theatre star and popular actor – but surely he was born to be in panto! He is bezzy mates with the audience from his first entrance, kids love him, dads don’t feel threatened by him and all the women think they can “turn” him!

He also shows that he can turn his hand to anything by reprising his skills learnt in Dancing on Ice on the aforementioned rink, even if there was the odd wobble - to the delight of the audience!

Elsewhere, other excellent performances vie for supremacy and challenge Barrowman well! There’s the hugely talented ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin ( Will Scarlett) who has many incredibly clever solo slots, and, in an inspired move, Don McLean’s Friar Tuck has to dress as a woman to help Robin’s plans, thus allowing McLean to showcase his panto dame proficiency in a panto that might not otherwise have had one!

The sets are marvellous, the costumes sparkle, the Merry Men add handsome charm and every one of the many pennies ploughed into this is money well spent – as is the price of your ticket!

Jack and the Beanstalk

Alban Arena, St Albans
20 December 2008 (Matinee)

Rock on boys! We're having a ball!

To be honest, I wasn’t full of hope about this panto, but I was really very pleasantly surprised.
Cannon and Ball never really made me laugh in the 70s and 80s, when I pretty much laughed at anything. And to prove this, I will admit that I was more a Little and Large girl!

But to be fair, I did laugh at them in this, mainly because their years of stage experience and working an audience really showed. They have an enthusiasm that ripples through to the audience, their sense of silliness is a sublime tonic for a credit crunch Christmas and their skill at audience interaction is honed and polished.

The biggest laughs in panto seem to come when it looks like things have gone wrong. People in panto know this and as a result the “going wrong” is all meticulously rehearsed. If this was the case for this show, then the mistakes looked so realistic that I heartily congratulate the rehearsal process! Cannon and Ball played up to them gloriously and had the whole audience in the palm of their hands. Rehearsed or not, this is what it’s all about!

Thankfully, the rest of the cast do not flounder in their wake. Barry Hester is a excellent Dame Trot and there are good solid performances throughout, including Ricky K as Jack and an effervescent Karen Jeffs as Fairy Courgette.

My only criticism was having the Mr Bean character which seemed entirely superfluous to the whole plot and a completely pointless addition to the cast. If the producers added him in because they were worried that Cannon and Ball were the only “names” in the cast, then their fears were foundless!

The past few years of panto at the Arena have been fairly dire as a string of TV stars have been sent in to get bums on seats. Cannon and Ball really showed them up and are testament to the fact that experience does count for something – thank goodness!