Wilton’s Music Hall

I’ve heard a lot about Wilton’s since its restoration but it didn’t prepare me for the sheer magic of the place. You reach it down a narrow alleyway off a small side street near St Katherine’s Dock. It is a little like stepping back into Dickensian London. The buildings are old ( 1690s ) and have had various uses, including an ale house and a Methodist mission, but from the mid 19th century until 1881 it was a music hall and it is as a music hall that it has been restored. The foyer space consists of a labyrinth of rooms, all now bars and cafes and the atmosphere is excited and lively. The real glory of the place, however, is the auditorium which gives new meaning to the word ‘atmospheric’. It is an absolute gem.

 

 

I saw Les Enfants Terribles performing The Terrible Infants and the show suited the venue perfectly. A dark and intricate mixture of song, story-telling and puppetry, the show is by turns hilarious, shocking and strangely moving. Our thanks should go to John Earl, John Betjeman, Spike Milligan and all the others who campaigned and raised money for the restoration. For a detailed history go to wiltons.org.uk/heritage/history It’s fascinating.

Two Great Shows At the Everyman

The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool is a treasure. It presents a brilliant mix of original productions and touring shows and has a reputation for taking a strong political stance. Two recent shows have been knockout.

Reasons To Be Cheerful

This was a Theatre Royal, Stratford East production by Graeae Theatre but it reminded me so much of Everyman shows going back to its foundation in the 1960s. While celebrating the music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads the production laid into the Tories in no uncertain terms. We all ended up on our feet, singing a newly written protest song while looking at a screen where Theresa May, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and others of their ilk were shown sprouting Satanic horns. Subtle it wasn’t, but it hit the spot for this Everyman audience.

Me and Robin Hood

This was the kind of theatre I don’t normally like – a one man show in which we are simply told a story. I may have to revise my opinions because this was totally gripping. Shôn Dale-Jones is an outstanding storyteller. I can’t convey what was so magical about his performance. I do urge you to go and see him if you have the opportunity.

Our Truly Wonderful National Theatre

Since my post about Barbershop Chronicles I have made a few more trips to the National. Yes, from the outside it looks like a catering establishment with a theatrical theme. Yes, inside, the carpets and fittings are looking very tired and worn. Yes, the foyer areas are a bit cold and unwelcoming. For sheer consistent brilliance in its productions, however, the place is unbeatable.

I was in the Lyttelton a week or two ago when artistic director Rufus Norris was speaking to an audience of teachers and youth theatre directors who were taking part in this year’s Connections festival. His words on the importance of the arts in education, and the danger that they are currently in, were inspirational. His passion for theatre and his belief in its vital role in a healthy society were clearly heartfelt and his audience were visibly moved by his kind words about the importance of their work. He is exactly the kind of guy we need in charge at the NT.

In August I went to one of the all day Saturday performances of Angels in America. I saw the original production here many years ago and have never forgotten it but this year’s much more lavish and high profile treatment was breath-takingly good. Nathan Lane’s performance was entrancing. Andrew Garfield wore his role like a snug glove. What a great idea this revival was.

 

In September came Follies, a Sondheim musical I was not familiar with, although a couple of the songs are well-known. Again, what a brilliant idea to revive this show on a big budget. I was slightly worried by the appeals that went out for people to support the production financially. I didn’t want the NT to bankrupt itself. Whatever it cost, the money was well spent. The four leading roles ( or is it eight leading roles ? ) were brilliantly cast and performances were superb across the board ( but, of course, Imelda Staunton is something special ). Adventurous, risky, unusual programming. Where would this happen outside the NT ?

I came back in October for St George and the Dragon. I had seen a few lukewarm reviews for the show and was disappointed because author, Rory Mullarkey, had written an excellent short play, The Grandfathers, for NT Connections a few years ago. These reviews, however, were WRONG. This is not just my opinion but that of the audience who rose as one at the end to give the show a standing ovation. It is a beautifully written piece. It is witty and clever, unusual and perceptive. It is, to some extent, a state of the nation play and gets it exactly right. Over and over again during the evening the current political situation was woven into the fantastic, mythological world of the play. It is a patriotic play and, in the same way as Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, blends that patriotism with a sharp, satirical dose of criticism of the way things are going. John Heffernan was warmly engaging as George and it was great to see youngster Reuel Guzman doing so well in an unusually large and significant role for a young actor.

 

The Minerva at Chichester

The studio theatre attached to Chichester Festival Theatre has had an outstanding summer. Apart from the excellent Caroline or Change, mentioned in an earlier post, there have been two other outstanding productions.

The first was a new play written by Deborah Bruce and directed by Jeremy Herrin. The House They Grew Up In is a play that keeps you guessing and constantly defeats your expectations. As the situation and history of brother and sister, Peppy and Daniel (Samantha Spiro and Daniel Ryan, both brilliant) are slowly revealed and we are allowed to explore their claustrophobic world, outside forces, in the shape of a neighbour’s son, the police and social services are breaking into this world. Will the consequences be catastrophic ? The play is gripping throughout. My only criticism would be of the set design, which, although intricate and evocative, interfered unnecessarily with sight lines for some members of the audience.

 

The Stepmother by Githa Dowerby was the third superb show of the summer at the Minerva. Given one performance in a private club in 1924 and apparently not staged again until 2008, this play has all the power of the same author’s slightly better known work, Rutherford and Son. While the position of women in society, the laws of divorce and the class system have changed radically since 1924, the play, strangely, seems to have plenty to say to a modern audience. Eustace Gaydon, the villain of the piece, seems to be the spiritual ancestor of all those financiers responsible for the recent banking crisis who could not see that they had done anything wrong. Will Keen’s performance in this role was so captivating that, at several points, I felt like walking onto the stage to punch him on the nose.

While productions at the main theatre at Chichester frequently transfer to London, it seems to happen less often with Minerva shows. This is a great shame. These three shows deserve a wider audience.

Summer at the RSC in Stratford

 

I’m not normally a fan of ‘themed’ seasons but this year’s RSC Roman summer in Stratford has had some great moments.

 

 

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra were both good productions, if not anything special.

 

 

 

 

Salome in the Swan theatre, on the other hand, very definitely was something special. Matthew Tennyson was entrancing in the title role ( good to see that cross-gender casting works both ways at the RSC ) and Owen Horsley’s direction was tight and inventive. I love it when the RSC comes up with something unusual like this.

 

As you may realise, I LOVE the RSC. I have seen nearly 500 of their productions over many years. It therefore pains me to write the following. This summer’s production of Vice Versa was quite the worst RSC production I have ever seen. Who thought a show like this was the sort of thing the RSC should be producing ? It was like something you used to see in theatres at the ends of seaside piers in the 1960s.  I am all for the RSC letting its hair down and coming up with a comedy romp from time to time but this was DIRE. Fart jokes and cries of “Stick it up his jaxi” no doubt have their place, although it is depressing to find them in the Swan. The worst thing, though, was the sheer feebleness of the jokes and the strained over the top performances. One interminable bit of business where items are removed from a shopping cart/crate accompanied by a series of puns would have been rejected by any self-respecting pantomime. Writer Phil Porter and director Janice Honeyman should be shown the door and never invited back.

 

Finally, to the best show of the summer, Titus Andronicus. This was the RSC at its masterly best, interpreting Shakespeare for the 21st century. David Troughton’s storming Titus was a treat and there were equally brilliant performances from Nia Gwynne as Tamora and Patrick Drury as Marcus Andronicus. In fact the entire cast were pitch perfect. One sign of a quality production (director, Blanche McIntyre) is the attention paid to detail and to the minor characters. Will Parsons, for example, as Young Lucius, with very few lines to work with, was totally convincing in his descent from proud grandson of Titus, arranging the family for a selfie, to a frightened, bewildered, haunted child, almost driven insane as the horrors of the story mount up. This was the highlight of the season.

 

Shakespeare Quiz

Below are twenty minor characters from various Shakespeare plays. Can you identify the plays ?

Scroll down for the answers.

  1. Lafeu
  2. Alexas
  3. Audrey
  4. Solinus
  5. Nicanor
  6. Owain Glendower
  7. Michael Williams
  8. Strato
  9. Oswald
  10. Siward
  11. Barnardine
  12. Tubal
  13. Snug
  14. Borachio
  15. Verges
  16. Sir Robert Brackenbury
  17. Samson
  18. Gonzalo
  19. Curio
  20. Dion

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare Quiz Answers

 

The plays are:

  1. All’s Well That Ends Well
  2. Antony and Cleopatra
  3. As You Like It
  4. The Comedy of Errors
  5. Coriolanus
  6. Henry IV Part 1
  7. Henry V
  8. Julius Caesar
  9. King Lear
  10. Macbeth
  11. Measure for Measure
  12. The Merchant of Venice
  13. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  14. Much Ado About Nothing
  15. Much Ado About Nothing
  16. Richard III
  17. Samson
  18. The Tempest
  19. Twelfth Night
  20. A Winter’s Tale

The Aisle Seat Awards

These won’t be rivalling the Oliviers but here are a few shows that have hit the spot for me in the last couple of years.

Hangmen      Royal Court

 

Martin McDonagh’s plays are always unsettling, dark creations but also hilarious. You find yourself laughing at the most awful things.

He is a unique voice.

 

Welcome Home, Captain Fox           Donmar

Fascinating update of a Jean Anouilh play. Anouilh was big when I was a schoolboy but then went completely out of fashion.

This production, set on Long Island in the 1950s was totally engrossing.

 

The Flick          NT

A marathon but quite extraordinary. It’s not often nowadays that I can say I’ve never seen anything like that before.

Annie Baker gets the award here.

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom         NT

This did what many great plays do. It took me to a world outside my experience and gave me some understanding of that world.

Performances were spot on. Gripping throughout.

 

How The Other Half Loves            Haymarket

 

It’s easy to forget, given his enormous output, how good these early Ayckbourn plays are. Beautifully constructed. Perfect set-piece comedy moments.

The dinner party scene made me laugh until it hurt.

 

 

The  Go-Between           Apollo

The award here goes to Michael Crawford. It’s a lovely ‘chamber’ musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood but Crawford steals the show. He is one of our great actors. Watching him as he contemplated his younger self gave me goose bumps. Entrancing.

 

The Red Shed             Everyman, Liverpool

 

Not exactly a play. More like stand-up with dramatic elements.

Preaching to the converted at the Everyman but a masterly piece.

 

Nice Fish            Harold Pinter

I notice how many of my award winners might be described as oddball shows. This might be the oddest of them all.

Based on the prose poems of Louis Jenkins, and set around a hole in the ice on a frozen lake, the play goes to places that most plays don’t go. Puppetry, fishing and Mark Rylance. What more could you want ?

St Joan             Donmar

This is one of my absolutely favourite plays and I approach a new production apprehensively.

Luckily, this was a brilliant interpretation ( director, Josie Rourke) with a rock solid central performance from Gemma Arterton.

 

 

Buried Child            Trafalgar Studios

It’s easy to get tired of plays about ‘The American Dream’ but this was edge of your seat stuff. Tense. Full of menace. Written in the 1970s but still has plenty to say in the age of Trump.

 

Speech and Debate          Trafalgar Studios

Fresh. Pacey.

Engaging performances from Douglas Booth, Patsy Ferran and Tony Revolori and a sharply pointed script by Stephen Karam.

 

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead             Old Vic

Never seen this demanding play done so well. Absolute perfection.

Josh McGuire, Daniel Radcliffe and David Haig all at the top of their form.

As it ended, we rose to our feet, knowing that we had seen something special.

 

The Goat                       Haymarket

Staggering story. Sensational performance from Sophie Okonedo.

Really split the audience. Great fun watching the more staid members of the audience squirm, really not enjoying it.

 

 

Hamlet                         RSC

I can’t count how many Hamlets I have seen. Alan Howard was the first, followed by, amongst others, Mark Rylance, David Tennant, Roger Rees, Alex Jennings, Toby Stephens and Rory Kinnear.

Paapa Essiedu and Simon Godwin have made the play fresh as paint. Certainly one of the most engaging performances in the title role that I have seen.

Barbershop Chronicles

Congratulations to the NT on their exciting production of this intricate play. With the Dorfman in my favourite configuration ( audience on four sides of the stage ), this fast-moving show can switch like lightning between barbershops in Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Johannesburg, Harare and Peckham. Clever use of a suspended globe and advertising signs scattered around the set mean that the audience never becomes disorientated when the show jumps from country to country.

Articles in the programme focus on the mental health of young black males but the play seems to be about much more than that. It strikes a lovely balance between light-hearted crosstalk and some passionate and serious discussion of a multitude of topics.

The structure is complex and you have to stay alert to catch the links between the strands and see how the whole relates to the parts but it works brilliantly. I loved it.

Quote Quiz

I think this will be quite demanding.

Below are quotations from ten plays, some more well-known than others. Can you name the plays ?

Scroll down for the answers.

  1. Whilst far away the King and Queen do rule / Over a golden age of monarchy / That bothers no one, does no good, and is / A pretty plastic picture with no meaning
  2. What I want you to remember as the bullets come out through yere foreheads, is that this is all a fella can be expecting for being so bad to an innocent Irish cat.
  3. The human race is a let-down, Ernest; a bad, bad let-down ! I’m disgusted with it. It thinks it’s progressed but it hasn’t; it thinks it’s risen above the primeval slime, but it hasn’t – it’s still wallowing in it. It’s still clinging to us, clinging to our hair and our eyes and our souls.
  4. The profoundest voice in the world reduced to a nursery tune.
  5. Film can express things that computers never will. Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness. Film is light and shadow and it is the light and shadow that were there on the day you shot the film.
  6. Do it on the radio.
  7. I can’t use the word ‘semen’ at lunchtime and I can’t use it at six o’clock.
  8. You see, I’m in a more peculiar position than I could ever explain. I am a woman with a history.
  9. How in hell on earth do you imagine that you’re going to have a child by a man that can’t stand you ?
  10. Poor old Lord Mortlake, who had only two topics of conversation, his gout and his wife ! I never could quite make out which of the two he was talking about. He used the most horrible language about them both.