Eight plays in Seven Days
A change of subject. I’m not writing about writing this time, but turning to another passion of mine, the theatre.
TJ and I have just been to London for a culture fest. The island we live on – Gran Canaria – is our home now and we love the climate, the scenery, the people and the relaxed pace of life, but of course there are things we miss in England. One of these is the theatre.
During our week’s stay, we go to the theatre every night and manage to fit in a couple of matinees too. Our choice of plays depends on what’s on at the time of our visit. This time – 10th to 16th April, 2014 – we sample a diet of comedies, including two by Noel Coward. Comedy: the genre that both reflects society and critiques it, making us laugh as we recognise ourselves and others. What strikes me most about our choices is that a dominant theme emerges: the class system. At a time when the ITV series, Downton Abbey, has proved popular on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems clear that the English obsession with people’s position in society is still of interest. The amount of media attention given last year to the publication of the Great British Class Survey also demonstrates how fascinated we are by class and its workings.
Here is my take on the plays we saw.
Relative Values by Noel Coward, directed by Trevor Nunn at The Harold Pinter Theatre is one of Coward’s later plays, written in 1951, which shows the master craftsman at the top of his technique. A good example of the type of well-made play set in an upper class drawing room that fell out of favour when John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) assaulted Royal Court audiences with an angry young man ranting about the upper classes and an ironing board on stage created a theatrical revolution. After that, drawing room comedies were considered dead. But Coward’s plays received a renaissance in the early sixties, when he became the first living playwright to have a play performed by the National Theatre (Hay Fever). And now a second renaissance has occurred with audiences flocking to see these period pieces to enjoy the period costumes, elegant country house settings and laugh at the attitudes of the upper classes and the servants who support them.
Trevor Nunn’s production of Relative Values sets the play within its time with excerpts from Pathe News relayed between scenes. The acting is slick with an easy, self-assured central performance from Patricia Hodge as Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, who finds just the right tone for her sardonic comments. She’s seemingly open-minded about her son marrying an actress from a low class background but in fact adamant that he will not. Caroline Quentin, as Moxie, makes the most of her comedic opportunities as the maid unhappy to be promoted as companion to the Countess so that her sister, the proposed bride, won’t realise she’s a servant (shock, horror!). Rory Bremner, the impressionist, as Crestwell, the butler, excels in this role, his theatrical debut. The rest of the cast does not disappoint. Steven Pacey stands out as Felicity’s nephew, making the most of a rather underwritten role by making him overtly gay. Apart from the premise of Moxie’s dilemma, the reason the play is still worth performing today is not hard to discover. In the hands of a talented cast and director the lines sizzle with wit and style, making Coward a worthy successor to Oscar Wilde. The audience loved it. So did TJ and I.
The other Noel Coward play, Blithe Spirit, at the Guelgud Theatre, directed by Michael Blakemore, is also notable for its style, witty dialogue and stage effects. It boasts the appearance of an icon of theatre and television, the eighty-eight year-old Angela Lansbury, playing Madame Arcati. The production is worth seeing for her quirky performance but offers much more. A strong cast is headed by Janie Dee’s perspicacious Ruth and Jemima Rooper’s malicious ghost, Puck-like Elvira, intent on mischief. Charles Edwards as Charles, the husband torn between his two very different wives, reveals how difficult it is to find perfect love. Patsy Ferran as Edith, the zany maid, is hilarious in her professional stage debut. The staging is admirable including the collapse of the set on the final curtain as the ghosts take their revenge. Several of the costumes, namely Ruth’s, do not help her character: the first evening dress too pale, the skirt and blouse dowdy, the red dress and matching shoes too brash. She’s a strong character and deserves to be more appropriately dressed. The play is light and frothy, full of surprises, as Coward concentrates on another of his favourite themes – that of the difficulty of succeeding in forming a perfect relationship. Amusing, entertaining, a stylish production.
Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Jonathan Kent, just moved from the Almeida Theatre to the West End Noel Coward Theatre, is a modern American play – very different in form and style from the two plays reviewed above. It does however touch on similar themes about the entrenched positions in society in which people find themselves. In spite of the perceived belief that any American can achieve anything if they work hard enough, the writer suggests that a certain amount of luck and the ability to recognise an opportunity when it arises is needed. Margaret, brilliantly played by Imelda Staunton, comes from the wrong side of the tracks in Boston, as does Mike, Lloyd Owen. The difference is that Mike has escaped his origins and become a wealthy doctor, whereas the feisty but tactless Margaret is stuck in a rut. Continually late for work by having to cope with a handicapped daughter, she loses her job and doesn’t know how she will pay the rent. Her bitterness creates the tension in the play but, as played by Staunton, she doesn’t lose our sympathy. The scenes change from the rundown outside of a factory, to the dowdy kitchen of Margaret’s lodgings, to the Bingo Hall, and to Mike’s upmarket modern minimal lounge with its white furniture and objets d’art. Very funny “in yer face humour” plus a helping of pathos that both entertains and makes its point.
Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, adapted by the Goodale Brothers and directed by Sean Foley at the Duke of York’s theatre is a play that encourages us to laugh at the antics of Bertie Wooster, a member of the upper classes with very little between his ears, who manages to survive due to the loyal support of Jeeves, the butler. Jeeves stage-manages the production of Perfect Nonsense as Wooster wants to relive this event in his life as a play. We see the new cast with Robert Webb and Mark Heap as Bertie and Jeeves respectively, actors well known to most of the audience but not to us as we don’t watch English TV.
There are only three in the cast. Webb remains as Bertie throughout but Heap plays a multitude of characters as well as Jeeves, as does Mark Hadfield as Seppings. I felt that the multi-casting affected the special relationship between Jeeves and Wooster, the most important facet of the books and previous TV series. On the other hand, it was the multi-casting and the necessity for a character to dive under the bed or exit through one door and reappear through another as a different persona that created much of the humour. We found ourselves in the world of farce and meta-theatre, laughing at the antics of the would-be actors in Bertie’s play and the attempts of Jeeves to cope with the multiple scene changes. Farcical, meta-theatrical stuff, it mocked the efforts of amateur theatre. The performance we attended received a standing ovation from the audience.
Did I enjoy it? Not really. Slapstick and grimacing not really my bag and I became a little bored by the mindless gimmicks, however innovative and clever. But I have to admit it is well done.
Handbagged by Moira Buffini, a new play, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, now playing at The Vaudeville Theatre, is another meta-theatrical play, with multiple casting. We are presented with a basic set, in the shape of a giant Union Jack but in a neutral colour, which puts the focus on the acting. The play is set during Margaret Thatcher’s time at 10 Downing Street and considers how much influence the Queen wields to control the Iron Lady. Did they like each other? How did they really get on? There are two Queens, Marion Bailey and Lucy Robinson, and two Prime Ministers, Stella Gonet and Fenella Woolgar, the younger and the older versions of each respectively, and two other actors, both male, who play multiple roles. I couldn’t help wondering about our obsession with royalty and the present trend to write about real people in plays and films. How satisfying is it for actors to play clones rather than invented characters? In this case we have already seen the imagined meetings between the Queen and different Prime Ministers in Audience at the Guelgud Theatre last year. Is there room for another play on this theme? Once the perfomance starts I forget about my misgivings. Unlike the latter play, a series of sketches, Handbagged really comes to grips with the differences of opinions and relative power stance of the two women and, as a bonus, is extremely funny. The relatively near history means that we remember the issues but are far enough from it to see the problems that arise. The actors continually remind us that we are watching a play in a theatre. This has a distancing effect that makes us think and even be judgmental. Mrs Thatcher thinks an interval is not necessary and that they should continue without a break. The Queen walks to the front of the stage and announces, very sweetly, ‘There will now be a fifteen minute interval’ leaving us in no doubt who is in charge. The two male actors, Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle, certainly earn their keep, sparring over who should be Neil Kinnock (Neet won) and Neet making us question the casting of certain actors in inappropriate roles by his rendering of Nancy Regan. My verdict: some very sharp repartee both political and theatrical that made for a telling, entertaining production.
In Another Country, by Julian Mitchell, directed by Jeremy Herrin, at The Tralfalgar Studios, the theme of class continues, this time in a public school. The boys invent their own hierarchy and some of them rebel. When they leave school, some of the boys will perpetuate the accepted social system, but others will develop the seeds of discontent planted in their schooldays and become radicals. Shades of the Cambridge spies pervade the subtext of the piece. The production is brilliantly acted by this predominantly young cast. One particular outstanding performance is that of Rob Callendar as Bennett, the role that made Rupert Everett famous in the film. Callendar is certainly a young actor to look out for in the future, but the entire cast excelled. The play gripped from beginning to end, with its underlying theme of homosexuality and its consequences. The interior scenes with dark panelled walls add to the atmosphere of the school as a prison, isolated from the rest of the world – another country in fact.
Fatal Attraction by James Dearden, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, is adapted from the 1980’s film. Plays from film adaptions appear to be an increasing trend. Shakespeare in Love is to receive a stage production at the Noel Coward theatre shortly.
The film was criticised for being anti-feminist and James Dearden has re-written his film script, intending to make Alex Forrest a more sympathetic character. We do feel more for this lost, lonely girl, as played by Natascha McElhone, than we did for the brash Alex of Glen Close in the film.
But there are many flaws in the re-write. For example, Dearden gives Dan Gallagher (Mark Bazeley) two chances to put forward his case for making the wrong choice that fatal week-end: one to a male friend in a bar and the second repeatedly talking directly to the audience. One of these methods is surely redundant. Neither works. Dan’s dilemma is self-made and keeping on about it doesn’t make us sympathise with him. If the purpose of the re-write was to make Alex more sympathetic, why give Dan so many opportunities to explain his feelings? To redress the balance surely Alex should be given the same the same opportunity to show us inside the crazy logic of her mind by a soliloquy or two.
Not a satisfying production despite the fact the play is directed by Trevor Nunn. Most of the audience are too familiar with the plot. The ripple of excitement when the ubiquitous bunny is first mentioned bore witness to that, as did the reaction to the steam arising from the boiling saucepan. Kristen Davis as the betrayed wife, Beth, had little chance to show her acting skills in this under-written, predictable part. She’s even deprived of her revenge. The end of the play, a last minute attempt to change the focus from the betrayed to the betrayer, does focus on Alex. She’s represented as a tragedy queen as Puccini’s music from Madame Butterfly swells. Set high above the scenery, Alex takes her own life in a dramatic climax as butterflies float around her. The effect is a surprise, not a shock, an out of key gimmick, tacked on to a rather mundane play. And we all know the film version where the wife, provoked beyond endurance, stabs the usurper and bunny murderer in the bath. At least the former ending demonstrates that there is more than one way to drive a woman crazy. The production does hold my attention because of its slick, ever-changing scenery, and the sensitive performance of Natasha McElhone but she doesn’t really stand a chance to portray her anguish fully in this lack-lustre production.
The last play I want to write about is an unexpected treat. Let the Right One In, a stage adaptation by Jack Thorne at the Apollo Theatre, based on the Swedish novel and film by John Lindovist, combines a feeling of Nordic noir with a mythical plot. It’s a love story about a girl who won’t ever grow old and a boy who will. Shades of Peter Pan. Eli (Rebecca Benson), a centuries old vampire, and Oskar (Martin Quinn) a nerdy schoolboy, bullied by his peers, are the unlikely protagonists. Set in a wood with “real” snow plus climbing frame and part of swimming pool, the atmosphere of mystery, murder and mayhem is created from the very beginning as the audience becomes immersed in the unusual events. There are some gruesome moments but this not a gore fest. As the writer points out ‘this is not a Tarantino version.’ The bullying scenes are more disturbing than the killings, the latter being necessary for Eli’s survival. The play has a large cast who do a lot to create the atmosphere through movement as well as speech.
Eli looks vulnerable under the tall silver-coloured trees, but her formidable strength is clear as she climbs trees and climbing frame with agility and looks down on the world she is forced to live in. Rebecca Benson plays the role with a less-is-more control of body and voice but doesn’t fail to show her inner turmoil and anguish at the choices she has to make. Martin Quinn as Oskar is making his professional stage debut and it’s an inspired piece of casting. He is a misfit, unable to find his place in the world in which he finds himself. Meeting Eli is a chance to lead a different life. But will he be able to fulfil the duties she expects of him?
I really don’t want to say much about this production, apart from telling you not to miss it. It’s magical. TJ and I sat mesmerised throughout and no, we’re not vampire buffs nor Nordic noir addicts. It is just very different, very moving and the development of the story is compelling. I’m so glad we decided to take a chance and see it.
Eight plays. If you only can only see one, which one would I recommend? To summarise, both Coward plays are well worth seeing, slick and witty, with Relative Values probably the more interesting choice, although then you would miss Angela Lansbury’s performance in Blithe Spirit; Good People is funny and thought-provoking and has the feisty, bold and moving performance from Imelda Staunton; Jeeves and Wooster is slapstick fun, but far from the original conception of the two characters. Handbagged has a tight script with sharp line work, but has the feel of a low budget travelling show; Another Country, a tour de force from the boys, gives us plenty to think about; Fatal Attraction, a disappointing production let down by the writing; Let the Right One In, innovative and gripping from beginning to end.
You won’t be surprised to hear that my recommendation for the play to see if you can only see one production is Let the Right One In. Enjoy.