Once again, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a trip to London and see three West End productions. Here are my personal comments about them.
The Painkiller by Francis Veber adapted by Sean Foley, presented by The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, at The Garrick Theatre, London, seen on the14th April, 2016.
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company was formed in 2013 and “Plays at the Garrick” is the company’s inaugural season. Seven plays, of which five have already been presented, will have been produced by November 2016. To come are Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and The Entertainer by John Osborne. I can’t wait to see them both.
This is not Branagh’s first foray into the sphere of producer/manager of a company. Remember the wonderful teamwork he achieved with The Renaissance Company. His aim this time is the same: to capitalise on long-term creative relationships. Who can forget how Richard Briers, originally considered an actor of light comedy, blossomed under this approach and produced moving dramatic performances including King Lear.
This adaptation of Francis Verber’s French farce fulfils the accepted definitions of this genre of theatre. Farce is broad comedy based on the exploitation of improbable situations, rather than upon development of character. Precisely choreographed confusion. But, in the best examples of this genre, farce can be said to be tragedy plus faultless timing. In this play, amidst doors slamming in the actors’ faces and trousers falling down, there is a dark undertone that underlies the comic mayhem.
In The Painkiller, one of the main characters, Ralph (Kenneth Branagh) is a contract killer determined to fulfil his task, gun in hand at the window looking over the street. The other, Dudley (Rob Brydon) is a deserted husband just as determined on his agenda – to commit suicide. Both are desperate men. They are lodged in adjacent hotel rooms with double adjoining doors. This is a set that acts, as so often in farce, as a third protagonist, the adjacent rooms being reverse copies of each other. The adjoining doors are deliberately designed to create sudden, unexpected entrances and exits. The inevitable meeting of these two very different men, each with their own dark intentions is the basis of the humour. This is dangerous, ambitious comedy indeed.
Branagh is not generally associated as an actor who specializes in farce but with classical roles. This play gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of his acting skills. At one point in the play, his character, Ralph, is injected with a drug, which should send him to sleep. Instead he attempts to both speak and move. His speech is blurred and gruff, hilariously funny, yet perfectly understandable, and, as he shuffles around, his attempts to control his movements appear to be hampered by rubber-jointed limbs. The flexibility of the actor’s awkward bodily movements combined with impeccable timing make for a brilliant performance.
Rob Bryden, the comedic Welsh actor, is very much at home in his role. He and Branagh work well together to produce the timing for the necessary laughs. As well as excelling in the comedy, Bryden manages to engage our sympathy for his plight. We do laugh at him for his pathetic attempts to hang himself and his naïve attempts to win back his wife, but we also laugh with him and grow fond of him, so when the two men, desperate in different ways, find a kind of odd camaraderie towards the end of the play, we can accept it.
Of the supporting cast, Mark Hadfield gives an amusing camp performance as the Porter. He extracts every bit of humour from his delivery of lines and perfect timing of gestures and entrances and exits. Michelle (Claudie Blakley) seems the kind of person Dudley would have married (ordinary) and her exasperation with him was quite clear. Less clear was her attraction to her supposed new lover, Doctor Dent (Alex Macqueen). The actor did a lot of shouting, standing around facing the audience and I sensed little chemistry between him and Michelle. His frustration with Dudley is expressed too loudly to ring true. The other member of the cast, Marcus Fraser, as the Policeman, plays with great aplomb. Marcus, a tall, good-looking black actor, has recently graduated from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and The Painkiller is his professional debut. Lucky man to land a part in a West end play. I’m sure we are going to see more of him soon.
I will now admit that farce is not my favourite genre and if you had been at The Garrick on the 14th April you would not have seen me rolling doubled up in the aisles with laughter. Physical humour is not really my thing. I prefer witty exchanges and satire. But I did enjoy this production. I appreciated the expertise of these actors, their energy and timing, and admired the clever set that worked so well for them.
The Maids by Jean Genet in a translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton at Trafalgar Studios, London, directed by Jamie Lloyd, seen on 15th April, 2016.
The Maids was written in 1947 and deals with the ever present problem of the gap between the super rich and the poor, the privileged and the under-privileged. In this play the maids are virtually prisoners, trapped in their subservient lives. With Mistress away, the maids dress up in her clothes and play at Mistress and Maid, the only game they know. The danger is that the line between fantasy and reality is very finely drawn and the murderous feelings the maid has for her employer could transfer to the ersatz Mistress.
I have seen the play before but this production approaches the play somewhat differently. For one thing the maids are played by black actresses and Mistress is played by one of the “upstairs” daughters from Downton Abbey. This casting gives the production a particular resonance. The setting is highly original. A square platform represents Mistress’s bedroom. It’s covered in red petals but there is no furniture, no bed and no wardrobes or dressing table. When clothes or props are required, traps in the floor pop up and Mistress’s clothes or jewels extracted. The petal-strewn floor can be seen as both floor and bed. When the maids realise that Mistress is due home, brooms are found from the floor cupboards and the carpet of petals are swept up, only for another red shower to be released from above on her arrival. It is left to the audience to interpret the metaphor of the red flowers. Blood, passion, anger? Or is it the sweet-smelling perfume Mistress covers herself in – an ironic sweetness that belies her nature. This was a galley presentation with audience seated in front and behind the stage, perhaps suggesting we are all complicit with the way the maids are treated.
As the play opens one of the maids is already dressed in Mistress’s red dress, but is prancing around like a drag queen. Her gestures and movements suggest a kind of vulgarity, which either signifies that she can never aspire to be like the woman she emulates. On reflection, maybe it is an imitation of the vulgar behaviour of Mistress. Food for thought.
Zawe Ashton as Claire pretending to be Mistress, like a female drag gives an animated performance, but she shouts out her lines in the opening scenes. Vocally she needs more light and shade to keep our attention. For English tastes the French play is wordy and repetitious and the lines need to be handled more subtly. Ashton works well with Uzo Aduba as Solange pretending to Claire. The interpretation of this role is carefully thought through and her voice controlled. Solange’s final speech as she approaches Claire with the poisoned cup is particularly well-judged and makes a chilling end to the play.
Laura Carmichael as Mistress is suitably terrifying as she gives presents to the maids with one hand and takes them back with the other. She shows her own vulnerability in dealing with her love life, but is too selfish to realise that the maids need to be treated with compassion.
A fascinating production that jerks us into thinking about inequality and the way human beings treat each other.
People, Places and Things is a National Theatre production that has moved to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, seen on 16th April, directed by Jeremy Herrin.
A new play by Duncan Macmillan, People, Places and Things will surely be remembered for its tightly written script which deals with the all too relevant subject of addiction with compassion and humour. The wit of the asides were a joy, relieving the tension. Macmillan is not afraid to incorporate the importance of religion into the equation when tackling the problems of rehabilitation, but not in a moralistic way. The play suggests that even an atheist needs to replace addiction with something else to believe in. What leads addicts to drink or take drugs are people, places or things. These same three options can also save them.
The play follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Emma (Denise Gough) as she goes through rehab, fails, returns and finally goes back in to the world to try again. Emma is an actor, an appropriate choice of career as she continually lies about who she is, something she does in her job. The audition she attends at the end of the play along with a long line of other hopefuls suggests that she has to start again from square one.
This was another galley production with audience facing audience and the stage in between. In this case the audience behind the stage is revealed with the help of lighting as a dramatic device near the start of the play, a shock to us and the protagonist, giving the effect that she is being exposed to everyone. This is an appropriate symbol as she is being encouraged to expose her true self in rehabilitation. The set is very simple with furniture suitable for doctor’s office and the inevitable circle of chairs for group therapy. A raised platform that delineates her home towards the end of the play is also effective.
The central performance of Denise Gough as Emma has been rightly lauded. She produces a realistic, uncompromising performance that never slips into theatrical cliché: it grips from start to finish. It must be a gruelling role, because of the subject matter and because she is on stage for the entire two hours twenty minutes of the piece. Denise won the Olivier award for best female actor in a London play, 2016.
The other members of the cast do not disappoint. It is easy to believe that they are participants or therapists in the rehabilitation unit. Special mention must be made of Barbara Marten who played Doctor/Therapist/Mum. The triple casting works well demonstrating that the doctor and therapist have virtually the same script, both sure of the programme needed for addicts to recover and both slightly patronising in their approach. Emma keeps saying that the doctor reminds her of her mother. When at last we see her mother and realise the role is played by the same actress the point becomes clear. But Mum is hard and bitter and this is quite a shock. She makes it clear that she has been through so much and is not prepared to put up with any more selfish lapses or she will turn her daughter out. This is very telling. It makes us imagine what she has been through before. The fact she calls her daughter Lucy causes a ripple of uneasy laughter in the audience. Calling herself Emma, which the therapists believe to be her real name, turns out to be yet another lie. Is she ready to leave therapy? Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark brought warmth, commonsense and humour to his role, first as an addict in rehab and then as therapist. Other members of the cast work well both as an ensemble and as individuals to tell the story of addicts’ experiences in rehab.
Three plays, seen on three consecutive nights, all very well done. But it is People, Places and Things that shines out. Its power to hold our attention is partly because of the unforgettably authentic performance by Denise Gough but also because the production gives such a complete interpretation of this impressive new play.