Thursday, 19 March 2009

Waiting for Godot

Milton Keynes Theatre
16 March 2009

Much ado about literally nothing!

I love Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but I don’t think I’ll ever truly know what it’s about – and that, I guess, is part of the joy of watching it.

But I have to say that in this wonderful production, as well as wondering, yet again, what Samuel Beckett had in mind, I was completely mesmerised by the fact that I was watching some of the country’s greatest actors – on the one stage – at the same time!

You’re usually lucky to be watching one – but to get Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup altogether was just such a privilege, it’s simply the only word you can use! In fact, you would only have to write a part for Simon Russell Beale – oh yes, and Anthony Sher - to get the full house of the UK’s top performers in my book!

But first – what’s the play about? Well, if I could answer that I would have made my name as a respected academic years ago, because any kind of discussion about what Waiting for Godot "means" usually ends up as a tangled mess. Audiences and critics alike have tried to do it for years, so I’m not going to attempt a solution here – just give a few random thoughts about what I like to think it’s about, because that’s really what I think Beckett wanted to achieve – people talking about it! So, job done Sam!

The action of the play – or inaction anyway – centres on Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen). Two men who appear to be tramps, but no one really knows who they are. They mess around affectionately, bickering and arguing like some old married couple who have been together so long that everything that needs to be said has been discussed! But no one knows where they have come from, or where they are going. All we know is that they are waiting for someone called Godot. Into their world comes the brash Pozzo (Callow) holding his servant Lucky (Pickup) on a rope, and they are brought messages from Godot by a mysterious “boy”. And nothing really happens throughout, but you are still glued to your seat for two hours!

I love this play because you can watch it over and over again and still get different things out of it. For me, Sean Matthias’ production highlighted the idea that the characters are all performers and Vladimir and Estragon are more of a double act in this production than I’ve ever seen before, right down to the scratching of their heads in a Laurel and Hardy-esque fashion.

And Stephen Brimson Lewis’s fabulous set depicts them waiting in a kind of dilapidated old theatre with boxes, wings and a fly tower so that you can imagine that perhaps the two once used to work there as a music hall act. Callow’s Pozzo is dressed as a circus ringmaster who drags Lucky around like the organ grinder’s monkey. To compound this theatrical idea, as Mckellen and Stewart actors take their applause, they also shuffle along to Flanagan and Allen's Underneath the Arches, while, on this particular night anyway, the audience stood to applaud in a well-deserved ovation.

Some commentators have focused on the religious imagery of the play. The characters talk of the crucifixion and Christ but it has also been suggested that Godot is really God, and that the tramps attitude towards the elusive character – partly hope and partly fear – represents the state in which many Christians live.

As for me, well, I like the religious argument, but I also like to see Vladimir and Estragon as two characters who are representing us in our own lives, whichever faith we follow. They are quite literally messing around waiting for something of note to happen and to be honest, sometimes that’s exactly how I feel myself! It manages to squeeze out comedy and pathos from the idea of boredom – something that it’s all too easy to identify with!

Whatever you think about the play, the fact remains that there is very little action. As the characters say on more than one occasion - “Nothing happens”. Therefore, you have to rely on the actors to make the fantastic word play come alive and in these four, I don’t think you can get better. The performances are outstanding.

McKellen and Stewart portray both the ease and frustration of a longstanding friendship that is mesmerising as they ponder and contemplate. Callow provides the perfect foil as the loud man of action who never actually achieves anything for all his bluster. Lucky only has one speech, but, as a mixture of words and expressions that seemingly bear no relation to each other, it is surely the most difficult to learn and portray ever written! It would be tempting to learn it by rote but, in Pickup, you can really hear the thought processes working as if he had only just thought up the whole thing!

Special mention must also be made of 11-year-old Gabriel Steele who is sharing the role of “boy” with another youngster. On only a day’s rehearsal, including just one run through on the stage, he was a natural, appearing completely un-phased by his illustrious stage companions and delivering his lines clearly and confidently. Definitely one to watch!

When this play first appeared on stage in 1955 (what a shock that must have been to audiences used to a diet of Coward and Maugham!) Kenneth Tynan ‘got it’. He wrote in the Observer that it has “no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle and no end. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare; yet it gets through as might a pilgrim from Mars.”He believed that it did this because it proved that a play was basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored. He was right, as far as Godot is concerned anyway (read last week’s Pack of Lies review!), and over 50 years later he still is, because this play with these performers is a theatrical triumph!

God of Carnage

Richmond Theatre
11 March 2009 (Mat)

"Don’t let the title put you off!"

I saw Yasmina Reza’s play in the West End last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. But much as I love Ralph Fiennes and Tamsin Greig, I think I enjoyed the new cast in this touring production more. For not only have they shaved off about ten minutes in this “straight through” 90 odd minute play, making it much tighter and pacier, they also have the absolute master of the one-liner - Mr Richard E Grant - in the production who is one of the best in the business at delivering ultimate put downs and sarcastic asides.

And that’s just one of the joys of this fascinating play about the relationship between two couples. The title God of Carnage doesn’t really convey a feeling that there will be a lot of laughs but the play actually conjures up plenty and they all come out of what is an enthralling study of the human condition and reactions.

The action begins in the living room of a middle class French couple (Roger Allam and Lia Williams) whose child has been hit in the face with a stick by another boy, which has resulted in two of his teeth being removed. They are joined by the parents of the culprit (Grant and Serena Evans) who have come round to discuss the situation. It all starts quite gently as both couples are a little nervous, but it’s a wonderful slow burner and eventually the angry recriminations come out, which also highlight the weaknesses in each of the couple’s own characters and relationships.

It’s like Art, Reza’s first success in the UK, in that what begins as a low key discussion builds into an all out battle, this time between the sexes, and the fact that you go straight through the play without a break adds to the build-up of intensity.

After a nicey, nicey start, all the characters begin to cast off their inhibitions and release formerly hidden insecurities. In doing so they seem to validate the pronouncement of Grant’s character that The God of Carnage – or primitive aggression - is unstoppable once the genie has been let out of the bottle!

Joining Grant in the cast to release that particular genie are Lia Williams, Roger Allam and Serena Evans and the four provide a great evening (or afternoon) of entertainment!

Don’t get me wrong because I love Fiennes, and Ralph, if you’re reading this – which I accept is highly unlikely – I think you’re fab and you were great in this – it’s just that this part is just made for Grant because in all honesty his character Alain is like a new Withnail - bitter, cynical and seemingly unaware of everybody else’s feelings, or if he is aware, he doesn’t care!

In the rest of the cast, Roger Allam’s transformation from being friendly and tolerant to raging is hilarious, but at the same time sad, while Lia Williams, who has been seen to relish emotionally volatile parts in the past, doesn’t disappoint as Veronique, a highly emotive woman who wears her heart close to the surface. Alain’s wife Annette, played by Serena Evans, has been living in the shadow of her husband for too long and her release is a joy to watch as, like Veronique, she becomes just as aggressive as her spouse, if not more!

So, don’t let the title put you off. This is an extremely funny play that, like all good comedies of manners, gives you a very satisfying amount to think about as well and I left the theatre particularly concerned that a minor bicker about who was going to make the tea could escalate! But another bonus is that there’s plenty of time to go out for dinner afterwards too which is always a bonus in my book!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Pack of Lies

9 March 2009
Milton Keynes Theatre

Good story but not tightly packed!

I’ve never found the seats at the Milton Keynes Theatre to be particularly uncomfortable before. And I saw High Whitemore’s Pack of Lies a few years ago and thought it was a good story. So why did I find myself shifting around in my seat for more or less the entire two hours duration of this show? Well, in short, I think it’s because this production needed a big kick up the proverbial behind it!

It’s still a good story.

In short, a bloke, Mr Stewart (Daniel Hill) turns up at the house of Bob and Barbara (Simon Shepherd and Jenny Seagrove) and their teenage daughter Julie (Corinne Sawers) to ask if they can use their home as a surveillance house. After a bit of persuasion they agree, but it turns out that their house is being used to watch their best friends, Peter and Helen Kroger, (Peter Slade and Lorna Luft – yes – Judy Garland’s daughter, no less!) who live across the road, because the powers that be believe that they maybe KGB spies!

It sounds unbelievable that this could happen in a normal suburban street, but it did and the play is based on the true story of the Krogers’, which was quite a famous one in 1961.

The strength of this play is that it sensitively shows the impact of the spy world on a normal family and makes you think about how you would feel if you discovered that everything your best friend had told you about their life was a complete lie and that your friendship was therefore based on nothing. Barbara is devastated by the revelations and Jenny Seagrove’s performance makes this palpable.

It’s quite a sad play in this way but there are also some laughs, many of them coming from the performance of Lorna Luft who is a brash but friendly and incredibly likeable Helen Kroger, a performance that makes the outcome all the more heartbreaking. And Simon Shepherd’s Bob is a good mixture of knowing what is the right thing to do and discomfort at doing it.

The problem is that it’s soooo slow and, on the night I saw it anyway, needed lashings more oooomph! However, if you’re enjoying it you can say that the slow pace is the turning of the screw, the tension building, the claustrophobia. If you’re just shifting around in your seat – it’s just slow!

There is also a feeling of inevitability – you know what’s going to happen, because they keep telling you. They tell you everything, all the time, so much so that you begin to think there must be a massive twist, and to be honest, I think that it would have been a lot more entertaining if there had been. If Mr Stewart turned out to be not who you thought he was, or Bob and Barbara were MI5 or their daughter the real Russian spy, but none of them were, so it all left you feeling rather deflated by the end, thinking “and” – but by then it’s all over. Maybe I watch too many films!

It’s all very interesting and the performances are good – but – just talk a bit faster!

The Convicts' Opera

7 March 2009
Warwick Arts Centre

Bawdy fun and food for thought!

I LOVE plays within plays – there are so many layers, so many questions as to who exactly the audience is and does life imitate art or vice versa. It makes my head spin, so fancying a bit of theatrical dizziness, I jumped at the chance of seeing director Max Stafford Clark’s re-imagining of John Gays The Beggars’ Opera, written by Stephen Jeffreys and co-produced by Out of Joint and the Sydney Theatre Company.

The Beggars’ Opera is not merely seen as the first musical. Set in the underworld of 18th century London, the criminals vices mirror those of the rich and as such is a powerful satire of the time. It is, in itself, also great fun and packed with romance and intrigue and this new twist just adds to the entertainment.

In this re-working, it’s all set on an 18th century ship where, a group of convicts on their way to Australia, put on the show which depicts the life that they are leaving far behind. In doing so art begins to mirror life and confusion between artificial construction and reality runs riot.

There is also a wonderful score which combines the folk tunes of the original with fun reworkings of modern classics including "Sailing", “Those Were The Days”, “500 Miles”, “You’re So Vain”, and “I Fought the Law”.

Forget about why a ship’s captain would let prisoners stage something so subversive, and you will enjoy it very much because it is an inventive and enjoyable romp with some great performances from a top ensemble cast.

Top in my book was Juan Jackson who begins to identify fully with Macheath, the character he has to portray. And my enjoyment of his charismatic performance has nothing to do at all with the scene where he displays his perfectly toned and outstanding body in a small pair of swimming trunks – honest! He had a fab voice too!

But I also enjoyed Ali McGregor as the lovestruck Polly Peachum with an arsonist alter-ego packed with attitude and Glenn Butcher as the slightly camp director trying to mould this group of outcasts into a company.

The Convicts’ Opera is a pile of bawdy fun but alongside the actual journey across the world, there is also a spiritual journey for the convicts as the transformational power of drama works its magic.

Then afterwards, spend the entire journey home arguing with your husband about whether the swimming trunks scene was strictly necessary. For the record, I thought it was. And Mr FB is heading for the gym! Bless!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Tempest

RSC, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
24 February 2009

Not all message and metaphor

I was a nymph in The Tempest when I was about 12. It was an all-female production, but sadly not in the all-male Swan Lake sense, where having all the parts played by one gender enhances the production by providing new insights. It was an all-female Tempest because I was at an all-girls school and needs must!

There really was nothing new about my school production at all it was as traditional as it comes, except for the rather fetching (not!) pink nylon dress that I had to wear! These kinds of experiences can taint your view of Shakespeare for life, but luckily, the existence of the RSC and many other forward thinking and exciting companies are our theatrical saviours.

The RSC’s latest production of The Tempest, directed by Janice Honeyman, is in collaboration with the Baxter Theatre Centre of Cape Town and is just one example of how a 400-year-old play can have exciting new life pumped into it. It’s a spectacular riot of colour, innovation and emotion, that shows that Shakespeare is just as relevant today as it ever was.

Instead of being set on some non-descript fantasy island, the action takes place on an African isle. Looking at the play as a study of colonialism is a popular view, but this setting takes the idea further so it appears more to be about South African apartheid. This is most clearly shown in the relationship between John Kani’s magnificently dignified Caliban who declares "This island's mine" and Antony Sher’s tormented Prospero who tries to control and abuse him. Other notable performances come from Atandwa Kani as a captivating Ariel and Tinarie Van Wyk Loots as a beguiling Miranda.

However, it’s not all message and metaphor because as well as having these creditable undertones, the production is also reminiscent of The Lion King. The warm lighting takes you to a desert type location, the puppets and ethnic costumes are a riot of colour and the frenzied dancing and singing to the music of an on stage band is fun and uplifting.

This is a magic new take on Shakespeare’s last play and a great birthday present! (Thanks Mr FB!)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Boeing Boeing

Wimbledon Theatre
19 February 2009 (Mat)

Flying out of reality!

I love watching a good meaty drama on the stage, looking at motivations, characters and whether or not there are metaphorical messages to be gleaned, something to tell us about how we live – or should live – our lives. Philosophical points to be made. Coming out exhausted, but at the same time morally or spiritually uplifted - I love it!

But at the same time, there is much to be said for simply having a laugh and not having to think too much, just enjoying an entertaining couple of hours in the theatre with not too much to think about on the way home other than the fact that you must go and see more comedies because they make you feel good!

And that’s what Boeing Boeing does. The subject matter of one man trying to keep up with three fiancées without the other finding out and other characters unwittingly drawn into the deception, is classic farce and one of which there have been many variations of over hundreds of years. But if people didn’t enjoy that sort of thing, then people would write more plays about it!

Marc Camoletti's play uses the fact that all three are of different nationalities to get much of its comedy, showing that the Brits will still laugh at stereotypical portrayals of other nationalities despite being told that they shouldn’t. Meanwhile, protagonist Bernard studies the airline schedules to keep the girls apart which makes for a good farcical device. The result of all this of course is much confusion and a lot of running about through doors but thankfully no one loses their trousers! However, as with all of this genre, you just know that it will all be resolved in the end, and of course it is, but I think that the good thing about Boeing Boeing is that throughout, I was never exactly sure how they were going to sort it out.

The three fiancée characters, although somewhat stereotyped, were all well portrayed. Sarah Jayne Dunn was fresh from Hollyoaks and in her first stage role as a glamorous all-American gal was competent and, strangely for the subject matter, convincing, even in her American accent! Thaila Zucci was the gorgeously emotional Italian Gloria, and Josephine Butler’s Gretchen got most of the laughs as a delightfully overbearing German with hilarious pronunciation!

Susie Blake’s years of stage experience were on show in a lovely understated performance as Bertha, the grumpy, deadpan housekeeper who has to fit her own cleaning and cookery around the different nationalities.

Real brothers Martin and John Marquez as the serially betrothed Bernard and his long lost cousin bounce off each other perfectly and the timing of the whole cast was quite breathtaking throughout, matching some of the extreme physical humour and racing plot!

I loved the set – simple, minimal, stylish and white except for the introduction of flashes of three kitschy colours for each girl.

It’s all very silly but funny and pleasurable and if I can steal /paraphrase what a lot of actors say these days when plugging their shows “just what we need to cheer ourselves up in these difficult times”. And if there is a message to be gleaned from this show, well, for me, it’s to go and see some more comedies because sometimes, you’ve just got to have a laugh!