Friday, 24 November 2017

Scrooge the Musical

Curve, Leicester
23rd November, 2017

I was brought up on The Muppet Christmas Carol, and my sister’s favourite winter watch is the 1999 TV movie with Patrick Stewart. My point is that A Christmas Carol has become synonymous with the festive period, a classic tale for which families worldwide flock together to watch and re-watch with yuletide glee every year, and like me and my sister, everyone has their favourite version. So what better way for Curve to kick off their winter season than with Leslie Bricusse’s 1992 adaptation, Scrooge the Musical? The story alone is a guaranteed family-friendly hit, and it’s lovely to see an annual Christmas show which is actually, you know, Christmassy (there’s snow and everything!).

I wasn’t previously familiar with Bricusse’s show (he’s responsible for the book, music and lyrics), and, with theatre credits including Victor/Victoria and Jekyll and Hyde, I’m going to guess that Scrooge perhaps isn’t the finest example of his work. The music is nice, but forgettable, and Bricusse’s lyrics leave a little to be desired. Lines such as ‘happiness is a high hill, will I find it? yes I will’ and ‘I like life, life likes me’ are reminiscent of the Barney & Friends ‘I love you’ song* in their mawkish simplicity (*for those who don’t know it: ‘I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…’) and I can only assume the repetitiveness in the Fezziwig song is due to a lack of words that rhyme with ‘December the twenty-fifth’. Occasionally it seems as if Bricusse is partaking in a competition to find the most ways of saying ‘Christmas’ – with varying levels of success. In a hit-and-miss score, the undoubted showstopper is the Lionel Bart-esque ‘Thank You Very Much’, which is every bit the Dickensian knees-up you’d expect (including the obligatory tap dance break; the twist here being it is performed atop a coffin!) – although this morning when I try to hum the song all I can muster is its melodic resemblance to ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’.

While I have reservations about the musical itself, I can’t fault Nikolai Foster’s production or the performance of the cast, who put their all into Stephen Mear’s lively, ensemble led choreography and sing their hearts out with gusto. Jasper Britton brings creditable gravitas to Ebenezer in a tour-de-force performance. Scrooge’s soulful transition from wicked miser into charitable do-gooder is marked in Britton’s wonderfully expressive face; the same eyes which once mercilessly penetrated his debtors glisten with tears of joy come the picture-postcard finale. Elsewhere, Danny-Boy Hatchard brings a satisfying dose of east end revelry to proceedings and is evidently having a ball during his big moment, ‘Thank You Very Much’. And if Anton Stephan’s Ghost of Christmas Present is a bit of a scattergun pantomime, then that just adds to the charm. I also had to smile at the little detail of Marley’s (Karen Mann) chain-smoking Phantom henchmen – the lesson? ‘don’t smoke, kids, or you’ll go straight to hell!’

Curve have really outdone themselves with this production, creating their biggest, most lavish show yet. Michael Taylor’s set transports us to Dickensian London, complete with laundry lines and greying odds and ends that wouldn’t look out of place in a rag-and-bone wagon. Scenes seamlessly shift from Scrooge’s office, to his bedroom, the local highstreet (there’s a lovely array of shops, from butchers, to bakers and toymakers), and even a graveyard. Taylor’s set is magnificent in being totally engrossing, filling the enormous stage admirably, while never appearing superfluous or imposing – everything has its place and use. Likewise, Ben Cracknell provides a masterclass in how lighting is integral to creating atmosphere. Scrooge’s loneliness is brought to the fore by secluding him from the surrounding darkness: creeping shadows are magnified around his bedroom, and silvery mists chill to the bone. Cracknell’s skillful design allows Scott Penrose’s illusions (vanishing spirits, dancing candles) to shine, bringing a little magic to these cold winter nights.

Foster and company have demonstrated the communal aspect of theatre making as Scrooge epitomises how the contributions of creatives, company, and crew all come together to produce something of celebratory proportions. Yes, the story is a little sanctimonious and sentimental, but even my icy heart melted when Tiny Tim finally got his toy carousel, and while the music is not the most striking of its genre, it’s perfectly pleasant and undeniably Christmassy. Children and adults alike cannot fail to exit the theatre without feeling a little extra festive cheer this year.


Scrooge the Musical plays at Curve until 7th January, 2018.
Jasper Britton as Ebenezer Scrooge and the cast of Scrooge the Musical. Credit: Pamela Raith

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Albion

Almeida Theatre, London
18th November, 2017, matinee

This is our little piece of the world, and we’re allowed to do with it exactly as we like.

The second act of Mike Bartlett’s new play, Albion, is set at a murder mystery summer party. The characters gather in the garden, dressed in 1920s-inspired vintage garb and sipping martinis, all there to have a jolly good time with a select few invited guests in a sprawling country house. They are real and tangible, yet somehow it’s all a work of nostalgic fiction, not quite as true as some would like. This seems to typify the world that Bartlett and director Rupert Goold create in Albion, a sublime and (mostly) subtle new play that took me completely by surprise.

Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton) has just moved to the country with the aim of restoring the gardens of a country house back to its former glory and to the magnificence she remembers when she visited them as a kid. She’s brought in tow her second husband and her daughter, Zara, recently graduated and trying to break into the publishing world in London. Audrey’s son James died two years previously in battle and her relationship with her would-be daughter-in-law Anna is civil at best. Also in the mix is her old best friend (although they hardly see and know each other) Katherine Sanchez, a famous novelist who begins a relationship with Zara. Not long after moving in, we hear that Audrey has scattered James’ ashes in the garden (named the Red Garden as it was made in honour of all those who died in WWI) without discussing it with Anna. The play has a strong narrative, beneath which is an analysis of the shifting and divisive nature of contemporary Britain. It seems glib to call the garden and Audrey’s preservation of it a microcosm for the UK and its current political tensions because it’s shrewder than that. There’s an undercurrent of grief that drives Audrey with which I sympathised.

Having quickly flicked through the text, the dialogue doesn’t appear to be as sparse as other Bartlett plays such as My Child and Bull where, in the latter of which especially, every word serves a purpose and the stage directions are stripped to a minimum. In Albion, the dialogue seems fuller, characters are given time to develop (the play’s running time is over 3 hours), and Goold’s production is teeming with life, all of which creates a meaty drama with a rich cast of characters superbly played by the whole cast. Hamilton, for example, makes some extraordinary performance choices as Audrey. She is a designer and owner of a boutique range in London. She is independent, successful and wealthy but, above all else and for all the flaws that come with it, she is strong-willed. She has a strong focus and doesn’t sentimentalise outside of that; like in her company she likes the transaction of money for services, preferring the more business-minded cleaner Krystyna to the elderly Cheryl. At times, Hamilton is constantly moving about the lawn in purposeful strides; clapping her hands to dismiss something or someone that she is too busy to be involving herself with; being sarcastic but with enough of an air of politeness that she gets away with it. She plays the role of host and matriarch perfectly. Yet she is also hugely in denial. Her aim is unrealistic. Restoring the gardens will be expensive and the climate is different now to what it was when Weatherbury designed it in the 1920s, so the flowers that may have been there might not be possible to grow now. It is also solely her dream; her daughter and husband don’t want to be there. At other times, Hamilton is frozen with anguish like when she sees James and yet can’t quite look at him.

Bartlett really puts the effort in with all of his characters. If they do ever feel excessive to the main action, it’s because Audrey overpowers them all. Helen Schlesinger beautifully plays Katherine. In the third act, the two of them row over not being there for each other, and Katherine perfectly articulates that she’s just been a supporting role in Audrey’s story. Yet the cast have invested so much into their characters that they all feel real. From the hapless young neighbour with an ambition for short story writing and a crush on Zara, to the elderly couple who need the money by pottering around the house sometimes to Audrey’s dismay, to the Polish cleaner. I felt that I cared for them all. Goold gets the best performances out of the cast but he also brings his characteristic panache to the play, no more so than at the end of the second act when Anna is enraptured by the need to feel close to James again. As she reveals to Audrey that she is pregnant with James’ son (they had his sperm frozen), contemporary music blasts into the theatre, rain comes hammering down and Neil Austin’s lighting shines through the tree that dominates the back of Miriam Buether’s stunning English garden design. Yet on the other end of the scale, Goold can orchestrate an equal theatrical delight through a moment of pause when the birdsong stops during Audrey’s paean to her garden: ‘Never still, never ending, always in flux’.

On a personal note, I really connected with Zara’s and Gabriel’s positions in the play. Not sure what to study, how to pursue their career ambitions and feeling like they are working against the tide, their story lines reflect how well drawn Albion’s characters are.

For most of the play, the Brexit parallels are played to an effective minimum. You occasionally can see Audrey morph into a Brexit negotiator, delivering Churchillian speeches about how ‘we’ll find a solution. We need optimism. Fighting talk. More hours. Harder work. That’s the way forward. Spirit!’ Frustratingly, the play’s control is slightly dashed at the end when Matthew (the gardener and only other one who really cared for the garden but who is now in the early stages of dementia) tells Audrey that she must look after an impeccable rose that survived the war. As the lights go down on her cradling it like a baby, I felt that the pudding had been over-egged. Yet for the most part, Albion sees writing, direction and performances come together to create a striking, elegiac and spectral vision of an England gripping onto something that perhaps only existed in works of fiction.


Albion plays at the Almeida until 24th November, 2017.

Victoria Hamilton in Mike Bartlett's Albion. Photo: Marc Brenner




Monday, 13 November 2017

Network

National Theatre, Lyttelton
11th November, 2017, matinee
*Please note that this was a preview performance.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’

There’s a convincing article by Michael Harris in the programme for Network on the sensationalist media equivalent of fast food. Twitter, he uses as an example, is a culture where we melt sentiments into slogans, aim for Retweets and Favourites, and ‘consume “anger” as entertainment and each instance of “outrage” as an effective eye-grab’. We look out for our favourite commentators, or those we love to loathe, either agreeing or abhorring and sometimes not entirely sure why. We retweet the liberal elite as a badge of moral capital or, at most, to campaign and promote but to an audience probably already converted in a vacuum of anger. You see how easy it is to be cynical.

Network brings together artists from three very different areas of the arts: Lee Hall (writer of the screenplay for Billy Elliot and the plays The Pitmen Painters and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour) constantly shows in his work that theatre ‘should not be the exclusive property of a privileged elite’ (Hytner 2017, p.96); Ivo Van Hove is the one of the leading names of European theatre in his aesthetics and practices; and Bryan Cranston is from the world of Hollywood and, perhaps more notably, multi-award winning TV drama Breaking Bad. Together, in this adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, they bring together different and new audiences to see one of the most theatrical and technical coups of this year. To summarise the plot quickly, when UBS news anchor-man Howard Beale loses his job because of poor ratings he goes on air and promises that he’ll blow his brains out on live TV. After briefly dragging him off air, the network decide that Beale madly ranting about what grinds his gears will boost ratings, crucial now that the news branch has merged with the rest of the network and must make a profit. But when he starts calling bullshit over matters which could jeopardise the network and its ratings, the TV executives lock horns over whether to keep him on the air.

Jan Versweyveld’s design makes the Lyttelton’s stage look as vast as did for Angels in America. As the audience take their seats, to the right of the stage we see the onstage diners, the waiting staff and the kitchen pass. The centre of the stage is taken up with the studio floor and a screen with live feeds from roaming camera operators. On the left is a dressing area space and a glass box which contains the gallery. There’s a ubiquity of bright lights, shiny floors and screens, apart from in the Foodwork restaurant which is all about dimly lit tables and cosy benches.

Van Hove creates the well-ordered chaos and buzz of a TV newsroom moments before going live to the nation. Producers, cameramen, secretaries, voice over artists, directors and Beale can be seen wandering about, preparing for the broadcast which is being marked by a countdown at the top of the set. As the final minute to live counts down, the buzz of the newsroom is like mission control, and Bryan Cranston’s Howard Beale is like the astronaut about to take off in the shuttle, or a calm in the centre of the storm. He coolly sits down at his desk, a whirlwind of makeup artists, soundmen and crew members surrounding him, adjusts his papers and looks up at the camera. This is testament to Van Hove’s control over all aspects of his production. I found myself occasionally watching Cranston a few meters away do his pieces to camera before looking at the screen. I looked back and Cranston wasn’t on the stage anymore. There are couple of bits of simple stage trickery like this which are effectively used, particularly at the play’s bloody end. Elsewhere, the live video editing is timed to a tee. From Howard to the gallery and back again, the opening scenes are perfectly orchestrated.

Cranston is genius casting. He’s an actor who is more than comfortable and experienced in front of the camera but who can also act to the back of the Lyttelton without feeling like his performance is being compromising. To camera, he carries a deadpan expression, a serious voice, the occasional twitch or frown, and utter professionalism (to begin with). Later, he turns into a showman, confidently playing to and amongst the audience to share the prophecies with which he is apparently imbued. We feel it too. A warm up man encourages us to join in with the mantra ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ and applaud rapturously. Although the rant seems like easy, na├»ve, bubble-gum politics, I couldn’t deny the sheer feeling of excitement when Beale and the station crew were chanting the slogan. Elsewhere, Michelle Dockery gets the best lines as young TV exec Diana Christensen. Her rhetoric is mostly made up of soundbite-like gobbets and alliteration: she eventually comes to berate Beale’s spew of ‘dehumanisation and dying democracy’. She matches the sharp witted sassiness and ruthlessness of Faye Dunaway in the film and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler (2014) but she never overplays her role and you can fully see why Max Schumaker would find her so beguiling despite her seeming unfeeling.

Hall has remained faithful to the screenplay. In fact if he has made additions to the script, all the memorable lines come from Chayefsky’s film. I suppose what he has done is streamlined the screenplay into a text which efficiently keeps all the best bits of the film’s dialogue. By giving some of Max Schumaker’s (Howard’s best friend and director) lines to Howard, Hall has made Howard more the protagonist, rather than the oddball plaything of the TV executives’ conflict. The meta bits work best: a secretary going through some script pitches that all have the same stock characters in different job titles (the bolshie, intelligent, beautiful young woman versus the maverick older mentor figure, etcetera) still probably rings true for a lot of TV dramas today. Douglas Henshall’s Schumaker, who has a fling with Christensen, is also very good. I thought that his and his wife’s (Caroline Faber) frankness over his mid-life crisis was quite affecting:

Here we are going through the obligatory middle-of-Act-Two scorned wife throws peccant husband out scene. But, no fear, I'll come back home in the end.  All [Christensen’s] plot outlines have me leaving her and returning to you because the audience won't buy a rejection of the happy American family.

They recognise that, to Christensen, there is an overarching obsession with plot arcs, happy endings and audience ratings that extend into real life.

Technically it’s an amazingly smooth production, thanks to the unswerving company and Tal Yarden’s video design. A particular coup is where Dockery and Henshall start a scene live on the South Bank, the camera following them walking from the river, into the National and onto the Lyttelton stage. Some of the production, perhaps including this bit, feels excessive. The onstage restaurant might add to the idea that we feed on such tabloid TV. Spatially it also adds an interesting dynamic during the restaurant scenes because the diners become background artists as well as simply spectators (although they’re always more than simply audience members as our gaze occasionally falls on what they’re being served or what the kitchen staff are doing). Yet the main thought I had regarding Foodwork was that it’s a nice little side earner. The post-encore video compilation of the swearing-in from US Presidents’ inaugurations from the 1970s onwards also feels tagged on, although it’s worth it for the audience reactions to Obama and Trump.

Through this 1970s’ American stage world which channels a lot of contemporary anger, we can draw parallels to a culture of binary politics and holier-than-thou, eye-grabbing, satiating headlines in digestible 140 (nay, 280) characters. And at its heart Network features a superbly pitched performance with the weight of a Shakespearean tragic hero from Bryan Cranston, delivering one of the most watchable performances of the year.


Network plays at the National Theatre until 24th March, 2018

A scene from Network. Bryan Cranston (centre) and company. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Young Marx

Bridge Theatre, London
5th November, 2017, matinee

'Take a seat'

I’m reading Nicholas Hynter’s Balancing Acts at the moment. It is immensely readable, not only as an account of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre but also his time as Associate Director of the National, working on Shakespeare, his ebullience for new plays and why he wanted to be AD in the first place. He believes in the importance of theatre and that is conveyed persuasively in this book. This new venture with Nick Starr (with whom he worked alongside at the National) is a commercial one, yet it’s hard to stop comparing the Bridge with their old stomping ground. First impressions of the new Bridge Theatre? It’s in a lovely area which we haven’t really wandered around before: Dickensian streets meet modern architecture. The foyer is welcoming (as are the front of house staff) and light but the end of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art comes to mind: it needs to be ‘purged of culture’ and all the pretension beaten out of it. The artisan bakery looked nice and was very tempting but it was amusing seeing most of the audience walking around with plastic cups full of little cakes with a name I’m not sure I’ve heard of before. The pretty lights, free water and sea kelp soap are all marvellous, but is it the sort of place where we can get our sandwiches out without being told off? The auditorium is fantastic and I’m not sure enough noise has been made over it. Perhaps it’s because London is spoilt for choice for theatres but imagine another city getting a new theatre like this. It has the intimacy of the Dorfman or Royal Shakespeare Theatre but the stage has the vastness of the Olivier and impressive technical facilities to boot. From the back row of the top tier, sight lines and acoustics were both good and I’m intrigued to see how it’ll look when the configuration isn’t end-on.

So what of Richard Bean’s and Clive Coleman’s new play? While his previous comedies have had substantial satirical bite, Young Marx plays out much like an extended sitcom episode involving stolen silverware, a botched duel, and love triangles aplenty. There’s a great scene in the second act where Marx tries to convince his wife that Engels and their maid, Nym, are having an affair which is pure farce and an absolute hoot.

Any tragedy is swiftly brushed aside and come the final curtain we’re left with a feeling that all ends well (whether history agrees or not). While this is enjoyable and non-taxing entertainment, the occasions where Bean does attempt more serious drama, such as the death of Marx’s young son, the tonal shift doesn’t come naturally and leaves the play feeling a little uneven. One minute we’re laughing at some scrape Marx has got himself into, the next we’re meant to be weeping at the untimely demise of a child. Such combinations of tragedy and comedy can often be the most acclaimed of both genres, the final episode of Blackadder Goes Fourth being a prime example. Perhaps it doesn’t quite work here because there hasn’t previously been any sense of true threat or jeopardy, and the ending is a little rushed with too many revelations occurring in quick succession, meaning we don’t have time to properly process Marx’s grief.

One of the more successful ‘serious’ aspects lies in the political underpinning of Marx and Engels; the script is peppered with jibes against Capitalism and frustrations over the reluctant and immobile proletariat (with the irony that we’re in a new commercial theatre which sits opposite the river from The City). Perhaps the most resonant of these political arguments comes when Engels chastises Marx for claiming he is ‘brutalised’ by poverty, Prussian spies, and a dogmatic and newly-founded local police force. Engels puts him in his place, reminding him what it really means to be ‘brutalised’ as part of a social class which is battered, broken and worked to the bone. But this seriousness doesn’t last too long, soon enough we’re back to toilet humour and innuendoes galore.

So far, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bean’s play is all ‘Carry On Marx’ but if I were forced to make a comparison I’d say it bears more resemblance, tonally and thematically, to the recent BBC comedy Quacks (coincidentally also starring Rory Kinnear), which similarly follows a group of pioneers and their attempts to revolutionise a stuck-in-their-ways society. Both comedies successfully juxtapose ‘true’ history with deliciously silly humour and a cast of likably caddish characters. Even Grant Olding’s anachronistically rocky soundtrack strikes a chord with the music featured in James Woods’ sitcom.

So, Bean has produced a genuinely funny and interesting romp. Hytner has shown off his shiny new theatre to a classy standard in his production. There’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s all very watchable nonetheless, and a near guaranteed crowd pleaser. But I’m still left with the niggling question ‘what is it all for?’ It’s pretty clear that the play doesn’t offer anything new to say politically, socially or in any way that overtly resonates with today’s audiences. People might think that’s often the case with Bean but I’ve long been fascinated in his provocative humour and interest in national identity and northern working class settings. However, Young Marx isn’t the type of play I could see upon the National’s Olivier stage, despite the production being on a similar scale, because of the apparent lack of ‘motive’. But then I remember, this isn’t the National Theatre, and I am quite rightly reprimanded for any expectations that with the Bridge Hytner would be trying to emulate his tenure as AD at the NT. A lesson to be learned here in taking things upon their own merit.

So, if there is no political or social ‘stance’ (which seems pretty ironic given the source material), what does Young Marx do? For me it humanises a figure that has become abstracted to the point of obscurity through his philosophical legacy. Banish from your mind the perennial image of Karl Marx as an old, bearded man, here, as played by a breeched and bewigged Rory Kinnear, he is a young bohemian rogue; he boozes, he swears, he womanises, he fights, and by all accounts he is a bit of a layabout. The Yin to his Yang, Friedrich Engels, acts as his minder, paying his way, bailing him out on numerous occasions, and, aware that Marx is the genius of the partnership, his main duty is to chivvy him into knuckling down with his work. Bean has lifted the lid on the man (men) behind the theory, and by putting a face to it, an empathetic and entertaining one at that, it demystifies what, for some, is a rather stuffy and complicated political model. And that can’t be a bad thing!

Kinnear is by turns charming, grouchy, sly and infuriating, demonstrating that his clout as a comedic actor is just as mighty as his more dramatic side. He’s a true all-rounder, he even plays the piano! Matching him in wits, Oliver Chris is a scream as Engels. The two bounce off each other with easy camaraderie and much of the play’s warmth and humour stems from this partnership in which a great deal of mutual respect lies behind the blokey banter. In fact, I’d argue that the play would be better off titled ‘Young Marx and Engels’, so much is the play devoted to their friendship. Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife, Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone’s Nym are solid, but as they are typically situated as the straight men to Kinnear and Chris’s double act they feel a tad underused.

The other undoubted star of the show is Mark Thompson’s ingenious and gleeful set. A London skyline is dominated by a huge revolving cube, which twirls, slides and magically configures itself into, by turns, a pawnbroker’s, a pub, the Marx residence, Hampstead Heath, a Churchyard and the British Library. Thompson has created an actor’s playground (although I imagine it’s a techie’s nightmare!), and Kinnear climbs, runs and jumps all over it, finding every nook and cranny to hide in and exploit for its comic potential.

While Young Marx isn’t going to set the world alight, it’s an assured and pleasing work to debut in the new theatre, ensuring that audiences’ first impressions of the space are, on the whole, very positive. It’s too early to say whether The Bridge will be a place for Hytner to produce hits as big as The History Boys and One Man, Two Guvnors, but let Young Marx be the first of many ‘Plays plump, plays radiant, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten – plays persistent’… and apparently the occasional musical!

Young Marx runs at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December and is broadcast as part of NT Live on 7th December.
Rory Kinnear (Karl Marx), Oliver Chris (Friedrich Engels), Harriet & Rupert Turnbull (Marx Children) & Nancy Carroll (Jenny von Westphalen), photo by Manuel Harlan