Wednesday, 24 February 2010


22/2/10, Hampstead Theatre

Another cracker from David Greig, whose plays are consistently witty, surprising and politically engaged, in an RSC production by Roxana Silbert (who directed Orphans, which we saw at Edinburgh).

His starting point is the end of Macbeth. The tyrant (never named) is killed and replaced on the throne by a puppet, Malcolm, supported by an invading English force led bu Siward (Jonny Phillips), a bluff, tough so9ldier. But Macbeth's widow, Gruach, and her son have survived as a focus for discontent and rebellion.

Siward, attempting to impose peace by force, is baffled by a country where the local warlords apparently prefer continued violence and instability and rivalry to peaceful coexistence. Think Afghanistan.

Malcolm is a wonderfully cynical, camp figure who educates Siward gradually in the realities of Scottish politics, where nothing is ever quite as it seems. He's played by the red-headed Brian Ferguson who reminded us of the brilliant Jonathan Slinger in the RSC's The Histories. Gruach is Siobhan Redmond, slinky and seductive in black dress and spectacular red wig.

There are English soldiers lamenting their fate at being stranded in this cold,w et, craggy, boggy inhospitable country; and a comic English officer, Egham, played by Alex Mann, first seen moaning self-pityingly with an arrow in his arm, who turns out to be duplicitous and greedy as well as charmingly baffled by the Scots (he promises Gruach her son will be safe in hiding in some Glen, in exchange for liberty for his men to trade and buy provisions; but when it suits him happily betrays the boy to Siward).

Hampstead Theatre reconfigured to create a thrust stage by putting part of the audience at one side of the stage, facing a simple set of piled-up rocks. A live three-piece band on stage (cello, guitar, percussion) and two women (Gruach's attendants, in Muslim-style headscarves) who sing Gaelic songs. Siward accuses them of sending secret messages to those outside the castle in their singing; Gruach scoffs; by the end you think he may have been right.

A clever, well-acted and witty parable about the modern world, the perils of military intervention in other people's affairs, the difficulties of exporting political systems developed in one (supposedly enlightened) country into another (more backward?) country, and about Scots-English relations down the centuries.

Monday, 22 February 2010


20/2/10, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Which could be subtitled Rolf Saxon and Kelly McGillis in the Altogether. That's Kelly McGillis as in Top Gun's Kelly McGillis, now 52 (how one's youth evaporates). At their age this is what they call "brave" (or, if uncharitable, "foolhardy"). He was good, she was a bit disappointing, the play (about middle-aged love) may have been ground-breaking in the 80s but looks a little tired now. Three scenes of post-coital discussion (we heard the coitus before the lights went up at the start, noisy and enthusiastic: the Boy was with us and probably deeply embarrassed by I didn't enquire) in which an ageing chef (he starts off claiming to be in his late 30s and ends up confessing to 50, if I remember) and the waitress he's been flirting with at work fence about relationships and commitment and the rest and cook food together. They've both been bruised. Being American it ended happily if sentimentally, but was essentially unmemorable.


17/2/10, Almeida

Missed it: had to work. Anna Maxwell Martin. Everyone said it was a cracker.


15/2/10, Tricycle

2 hrs 45 mins. Frank McGuinness wrote it, Nicholas Kent directed, Caroline Lagerfeld starred as (a reasonably convincing) Greta Garbo.

Did what it said on the tin. It's 1967, the Troubles are about to start across the border in Derry, and a bickering family, the Hennessy's, are now reduced to domestic servants for the gay knighted English painter who bought the family home when they were on their uppers. Mum is a blousy, flighty piece endlessly rowing with her drunken husband, now the chauffeur; their teenage daughter (very bright, no friends at school) wants to go to Dublin to study medicine; the rock of the household is Auntie Paulie.

The artist knows Garbo and as invited her in the hopes of selling her the house. She observes tje bickering with wry self-referential amusement. She doesn't buy the house. Leaves. Auntie P is a repressed lesbian who falls for Garbo, and Garbo for her, but nothing comes of it for neither is prepared to lose control.

Much of the play is indeed about control and what happens when you lose it (as the Hennessy's have their house).

Clever set, doubling up as the garden and the kitchen, with a front door back centre.

The first act very funny, the second act too shouty (some key lines got lost). Generally too long.


13/2/10, Royal Opera House Covent Garden

Written by Penelope
The story of Shakespeare’s doomed youthful lovers has been popular for more than four hundred years, so it’s remarkable to realise that it’s only been performed as a ballet for less than fifty. Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and Prokofiev’s evocative score feel like they’ve been around almost as long as the story.

This season the Royal Ballet uses several well known dancers to play the principal roles. We saw Sarah Lamb as Juliet and Ivan Putrov as Romeo. And it’s Lamb who steals the show. MacMillan deliberately left the dancers to choose how to interpret the music and the mood, he didn’t strictly choreograph every single step and movement. It was fascinating to see how Lamb’s body changes as the play progresses. At the start she’s an awkward, shy 13 year old Juliet. She’s introduced to a suitor, Paris, and she’s all stiff limbs, with a straight body and a slightly gauche innocence. When she meets Romeo at the Capulet masked ball, she starts to fall in love and her movements become more fluid as they dance around each other, jumping, smiling and circling one another. The jumps and holds are smooth and there is a yearning in their bodies as they get to know each other.

The story takes place over only three days, and the couple fall in love quickly and we watch them dance after their secret wedding and night together. Lamb curls her arm around the back of Putrov’s head in a beautifully tender gesture. Gorgeous.

Once Romeo is banished, for killing Tybalt (an excellent ‘villain’ by Bennet Gartside), Juliet’s parents re-introduce the hapless Paris. Now she cannot bear to look at him or be touched by him. She keeps her limbs taut and straight.

At the end of the play, the two feuding families, Capulets and Montagues, are reconciled by the death of the couple. The ballet doesn’t give us a hopeful ending. We watch the heartbreak as Romeo believes a sleeping Juliet to be dead, and kills himself in despair. She awakes, too late, to find him lying there. Her moves are sensuous and she can’t stop touching him. She stabs herself and dies with her arm out towards him. Putrov is a perfect foil for Lamb, though he lacked the emotional intensity in the later scenes. She deserved the curtain calls and ovations of an entranced audience.

The Opera House orchestra were faultless, with the familiar surging Prokofiev strings in the Capulet ball. The costumes, from the original designs of Nicholas Georgiadis in the 1960’s were sumptuous – red and gold brocade, sweeping capes, beautiful puffed sleeves. Juliet begins in a pale blue little girl’s dress and then later wears a diaphanous ivory sheath. I’d seen the play, but I wasn’t sure how it would work without Shakespeare’s verse. I found that one of the most famous love stories ever written is also a beautiful, moving and memorable ballet.


12/2/10, Southwark Playhouse

A rather disappointing production of the Brendand Behan classic in the Southwark Playhouse's new premises underneath the arches below London Bridge station (only occasional train rumble audible).

We saw it once before in an Irish production at the Barbican. I don't remember the songs (very Theatre Workshop, for whom this piece was originally written/designed), and it seemed more involving then.

The performances here weren't strong enough (particularly the hostage, who spoke in a rapid monotone), the playing space (audience on three sides; rudimentary set including staircase and landing across the back) seemed alienating.

Competent but no more.


10/2/10, Menier

Unexpectedly wonderful: another triumph for the Menier.

Tamzin Outhwaite (full of fantastic energy with a wonderful light-up-the-back-stalls smile) as Charity, the ever-hopeful dancehall hostess in search of Mr Right. She finds three, all played by the same actor (Mark Umbers). The first is a layabout and a crook who chucks her in the lake before running off with her handbag full of savings; the second is a film star with whom she has a fling before his regular partner returns; the third is a bag of nerves who seems truly nice, but eventually lets her down at the last minuite, claiming he's too screwed up to marry her.

Paul saw it and complained that it's a flawed piece because there's no dramatic progression. At the end Charity is back exactly where she started, older, poorer, presumably wiser (though don't count on it). And he says the songs aren't well enough integrated and don't advance the action.
But what songs! Big Spender, the girls going through the motions of welcoming men to the dancehall robotically, is integrated. I Love Weddings at the end may not advance the plot, and could be sung about any wedding, not just Charity's, but it's a rollicking number and gives the grumpy dancehall boss a number of his own. Only Rhythm of Life doesn't really fit, but since that too is a fantastic number who's complaining?

Once again they mounted a production that filled the tiny Menier stage. There were some fine moments. The girls in their dressing room, wearily preparing for yet another night fending off the advances of lubricious men ("Dancing? We're defending ourselves to music!" in the words of Charity's friend Nicky, a great performance by Josefina Gabrielle, dark-haired temptress who sings Big Spender and rivals Outhwaite for energy). Charity hiding in the (translucent) wardrobe when the second Mr Right's Latin squeeze bursts in on them in the bedroom. The hippy love-in of The Rhythm of Life.

I'm not sure how long the Menier can continue this run of triumphant musical revivals, but we've seen La Cage aux Folles, Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music there in the past two or three years and they've all been in the range top-notch to bloody brilliant.

Monday, 8 February 2010


8/2/10, Arcola

Revival of the David Harrower play which launched his career in 1995 at the Traverse. He went on to write Blackbird, an extremely powerful piece about teacher-pupil relationships and abuse which I saw with Roger Allam (and Lea Williams?).

This is a three-hander involving a ploughman, William, his wife, known throughout as Woman, and a miller, in some dirt-poor place in medieval Scotland. The villagers ostracise the miller. The wife is despatched with the grain. She's fearful of the miller, who sits and reads and writes. The ploughman spends his time with his horses in the stable at night (and with another woman?). The woman gradually discovers the power of language: the naming of things, to the greater glory of God (the miller doesn't believe in God).

It opens with a riff about language and meaning. The ploughman tells his wife she's a field. She protests that she's not a field, she's herself. He tells her she's like a field and even tells her precisely which one. In time she apparently outdoes him in her capacity for language. In the central scene of the play she sits in the miller's house and writes at length what she sees in the world and its significance.

The title refers to a moment when the wife likens words to the way a knife opens the belly of a hen as she kills it.

All rather allusive but at times quite haunting. A programme note by Mark Fisher claims Harrower can't remember writing it: his subconscious took over. It is, says Fisher, mysterious: "a play more dreamed than written." He says its international success may be explained by the openness of the script to interpretation: "It has an elemental quality that strikes a chord across cultures." The starting point was apparently T C Smout's A History of thr Scottish People 1560-1830, and Harrower's interest in a subsistence economy where survival is paramount and creativity is a luxury. "The characters use a language that is without decoration, treating metaphors with the same suspicion as any threat to their perilous way of life. They lack the vocabulary not just for abstract ideas but for anything surplus to their immediate requirements." Which presumably also helps to explain why it translates so well.

Done in the Arcola's Studio 2, a tiny space entered by going back out of the Arcola's front door and round the side. Very cold. The space had three wooden pillars which were cleverly used to suggest doorways, stables and changes of scene.

The husband, William, was OK; the miller not bad; the wife, played by Jodie McNee, was outstanding: small, north country accent (the men's accents were all over the place and none of them remotely Scottish), face that lit up when she smiled, not beautiful. She reminded us a bit of Jane Horrocks. There was a solo cello accompaniment from a (very beautiful) Portuguese musician called Maria Rijo Lopes da Cunha who also sang a lament-like song (presumably Persian or some such because she's currently developing her stuies in Persian Classical Music at SOAS) while the wife wrote her testament.

On the way from work I read a stinker of a review in the Evening Standard and feared the worst, but it turned out to b very creditable. S said she found it quite moving.


5/2/10, Cadogan Hall

A Martinu piano quartet. A Smetana piano trio. A Dvorak piano quintet.

The Martinu was spiky, well on the way towards the unlistenable-to range of 20th century music, with random phrases apparently strung together in a disconnected fashion. At the end of the first movement, which went at a tremendous lick and was urgent and percussive, the man behind me let out a low whistle of admiration. In the slow movement one particular passage had the Chinese girl student who turned the pages for the pianist looking absolutely crestfallen: the only time I saw her impassivity flicker. The last movement had a lovely song-like theme which floated above choppy, jagged playing by the strings (violin, viola and cello).

The Smetana was bombastic. I fell asleep. But recall enough to conclude that it was agreeably characterful.

The Dvorak was infinitely preferable. It had tunes. And conventional harmonies. It was plangent. There were four movements. An hour later that's all I could remember.

The men wore grey suits and purple shirts without ties which made them look like Anglican bishops. Except for the second violinist who joined for the Dvorak, whose shirt was blue and who seemed younger and more enthusiastic than the rest. The (female) cellist had a fine red skirt. The viola-player's socks were too short. He had a rather coarse countryman's appearance, red-faced and block-shaped: I was told afterwards that in real life he's a farmer. I spent much time watching the players watching one another: first one would lead, then another, like passing the baton between runners.


29/1/10, Soho

Very funny, tremendously energetic piece written by David Greig for the Traverse at the Edinburgh Festival last year. We couldn't get tickets.

It's a two-hander about a pair of 30-somethings who meet up in a bar, have wild sex, and then pursue a series of picaresque adventures the following day, including a disastrous wedding and a drunken spree as they try to spend a large sum of money.

I missed the first 30 mins, so don't feel qualified to judge. But what I saw I thought was wonderful, rollicking stuff. The ladies thought it great as well.

Here are some reviews:


26/1/10, Lyric Hammersmith

Missed it. Had to work.

Version of the Chekhov classic by a company called Filter. S very keen to go, but said in the event it wasn't as good as their Twelfth Night. D said first half a bit tricksy with microphones and modern dress and deliberate anachronisms; second half played much straighter and much more affecting. Cast included Romola Garai.


25/1/10, Young Vic

A Palestinian production in English and Arabic (surtitles projected onto a bath hanging above the stage!) which rather confirms one's suspicion that, for the Palestinians, there is only one subject and therefore there can only be one Palestinian play.

I made notes shortly after seeing it, but I can't find them.

Yusuf is a simpleton. His brother looks after him. It is 1949. The British leave, the Jews come, there is fighting, they flee. The brother returns to the village in search of his girlfriend, and is shot. Yusuf and the girlfriend survive to live the rest of their lives in a refugee camp (we see them at the beginning, old and cranky, and the aged Yusuf acts as a kind of chorus, commenting on the action).

There was some good stuff with water. At one point towards the end the stage filled with water, so that the actors had to splash about in it. There was some satire at the expense of the Brits. But the accents were too strong, and quite a lot of the dialogue got lost in the unforgiving spaces of the Young Vic configured with the stage at one end.