As I’ve been busy finishing my novel, Sunshine Skyway, I’m late writing reviews of the plays I saw in London in July. But here goes….
The Truth by French writer Florian Zeller in a version by Christopher Hampton, directed by Lyndsey Turner, at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Zeller says his intention in writing is to ‘try to instil doubt on the reality and truth of what we see before us.’ Those of you who have seen his previous plays, The Father and The Mother, will know that he offers different viewpoints to invite the audience to look for a way to interpret what is happening for themselves. In The Truth the last thing we expect to discover is the truth about the faithfulness or otherwise of the two couples involved. As we move from one perspective to another we become lost in a labyrinth of lies in which self-deception is as prevalent as deceiving a partner. The play reminded me of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. It has the same economy of language and a similar theme of the impossibility of verification. But Zeller has a voice of his own and explores the theme in his own way. The production is slick and fast moving from scene to scene and couple to couple.
A bonus for me is that it provides a chance for me to see one of my favourite actors on stage, the fascinating Frances O’Connor. Her elegant body language and expressive face as Alice are a joy to watch. But the success of this production depends on teamwork. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Alexander Hanson as Michel but Tanya Franks as Laurence and Robert Portal as Paul play their part too in making this a tightly knit production. Oh and did I say that it was funny? The piece is a blast of witty one-liners that, judging by the laughter generated, the audience can relate to.
I look forward to seeing the sister play to this one, The Lie, whenever it comes to London, as I’m sure it will.
Faith Healer by Brian Friel,, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Donmar Warehouse.
Renowned Irish dramatist and short story writer, Brian Friel (1929-2015), writes about the search for love, faith, meaning and identity. Like Zeller, Friel believes that we live with ‘necessary uncertainty’ but, unlike Zeller, he persists in his quest for some sort of truth. Like Frank, the faith healer, Friel hopes that through scrutiny and self-reflection a miracle will happen and give him – and us – at least a glimpse of salvation.
Faith Healer is written within the tradition of Irish storytelling, compelling self-searching histories about human nature by narrators who are all too often unreliable. The play consists of monologues that address the audience directly but also have internal resonance.
In this production the curtain of rain that tops and tails each monologue sets the mood of the piece in an inventive way. I’m glad I’m not sitting near the stage or I would definitely get wet!
Stephen Dillane, as Frank Hardy, the faith healer, makes us hang on his every word, not afraid to pace his speeches slowly to give the audience time to take in what he’s saying. The repetition of the place names that starts the monologue is trance-like, magical. Frank’s aim as a faith healer is to make incomplete people whole and that’s what he’s trying to do to himself too. We understand that his power to heal usually fails – he always knows when nothing is going to happen – and that his disillusion with life springs from this fact; but we also appreciate that he is compelled to keep going for the few times when the miracle does work. His optimism is his salvation but it’s the factor that drags down the people nearest to him, as they trail round Scotland and the North of England and finally back home to Ireland and Ballybeg. Frank has the capacity to make people love him and stay loyal to him whatever he does, not just his disparate audiences but also his wife, Grace, and Teddy, his road manager.
In the second monologue, Gina McKee, as Grace, busies herself with domestic chores, folding laundry, relying on the mundane to help her forget her sorrow caused by the loss of her baby and the offhand way she is treated by Frank. This scene precedes the interval and I hear a young woman in the audience say to her friend. ‘Fantastic! You won’t see that standard of acting very often.’ I can’t help but agree.
I look forward to Ron Cook as Teddy to give us some light relief after the interval and I’m not disappointed. His chirpy delivery entertains us, but gradually the mood changes as he drinks more beer and we realize that he should have moved on years ago. He has sacrificed his life to take care of Grace and support Frank.
For the final monologue we return to Frank as he describes his return to Ballybeg. This need to return home is a typical Friel theme. Frank finds his home in more senses than one.
There is no interaction between the characters. Each actor stands alone on the stage, a theatrical device that highlights each character’s inner isolation. But these three people are irrevocably linked and the different versions of their itinerant lives grip the audience from beginning to end, offering a visceral, emotional experience.
The quality of the acting makes sure that the words and story remain long after the play ends. I doubt if I will see any better performances this year.
Sunset at the Villa Thalia by Alexi Kaye Campbell directed by Simon Godwin at the Dorfman at the National Theatre.
My friend, Holly, and I sit in the front row at the side in £15 seats and love being so close to the stage and actors. The thrust stage is transformed into a huge patio with a rocky promontory. A solid looking white villa stands upstage. The set is so realistic I can believe we are indeed on the island of Skiathos, Greece.
The first act takes place in 1967 and the second in 1976. It’s a play that demonstrates that the personal is political and that the decisions we make at any level can have a disastrous effect on others. It’s also about American interference and British collusion. Above all it refers to the way seemingly ordinary good-hearted people can be caught up in the greed and selfishness of a capitalist system at the expense of those less well off.
The audience is reminded in the programme of the political events in Greece during the time the play is set. In 1967, there is a military coup, apparently backed by the CIA to prevent a communist takeover, and the regime of the Colonels begins. A period of repressive rule follows, characterized by a series of right wing military juntas. Amid civil unrest and the threat of war with Turkey, in 1974, the juntas collapse. Following a referendum the monarchy is abolished and Greece is declared a democratic republic.
It’s against this background that the domestic events of the piece are played out. An English writer, Theo (Sam Crane) and his actress wife, Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) are on holiday at the rented villa. An American couple, Harvey (Ben Miles) and June (Elizabeth McGovern) visit them. Harvey, charismatic and dominant, persuades the English couple to make an offer to buy the villa, as he can see it is an ideal place for Theo to write. A remarkably low price is negotiated and accepted by the Greek owners, Stamatis and Maria, his daughter, who intend to emigrate to Australia. Maria is unsure about selling the house because she promised her grandmother that she would always keep it in the family. Theo and Charlotte are afraid that they are exploiting the owner and the daughter, but are tempted by the bargain price. The sale of the house and land is agreed. The transaction has been set up by Harvey, the American, and it seems he’s also been connected with the negotiations concerning the coup.
In the second act, in 1976, the English couple, now living in the villa, have two children. They decide to sell the villa at a huge profit and return to England. Harvey finds out that the Australian venture didn’t work out, that Stamatis died, Maria is destitute and her only relative here, her uncle, is dead too. She cannot return to Skiathos and she hasn’t kept her promise to her grandmother. Charlotte blames Harvey for interfering in their lives, but he reminds them that they must take some responsibility for what has happened. The inference is that it’s not only the Americans who are responsible for the problems in the world. The Brits must take their share of the blame. This summing up of the theme is far too simplistic, but the play does examine the love/hate relationship between the American and the British in a new and telling manner. A thought-provoking play set in an idyllic place that reveals the dark side of capitalism and of human nature.
The contrasting characters, Charlotte’s edginess, Theo’s gentleness, June’s rather sad silliness and Harvey’s dominance are a lethal mix waiting to explode. Harvey’s insistence that he’s a good man lies at the heart of this play. He has done things he regrets but he will stay with June even though he no longer loves her and, although he’s attracted to Charlotte he will make no attempt to seduce her. The American/British understanding – or lack of it – is at the heart of this play.
The Spoils by Jesse Eisenberg, directed by Scott Elliott at Trafalgar Studios
Best known as an actor with nearly 40 screen credits, including The Social Network for which he was nominated for an Academy award, this is the third stage play Jesse Eisenburg has written. As in the earlier plays, he has written the central role to be played by himself, and its easy to see why. Ben is an angst-ridden but charismatic young man, in the tradition of another Jewish actor/writer, Woody Allen. (Eisenburg is in Allen’s film, Café Society shown at the Cannes film festival 2016). Although it’s easy to make the connection between the two, Eisenberg’s style is fresh and individual. He plays a jerk, but he’s a captivating jerk and when he’s on stage it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. This is in spite of the fact that the other actors make the most of their roles undoubtedly because, thanks to the playwright, each character is fully drawn.
Kunal Nayyar (Raj in The Big Bang Theory) plays his long-suffering flatmate, Kalyan, and is a delight. He delivers the funny lines with confidence and is sincere and compassionate. Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) isTed, Ben’s nemesis, the slick boyfriend of Sarah (Katie Brayden) the bemused recipient of Ben’s fantasies while Annapurna Sriram plays Resma, Kalyan’s hard-nut girlfriend. It’s the characters that make the play, not the plot, so I won’t relay that. Suffice to say that this is a witty, sometimes shocking comedy, about aspects of contemporary life that gives food for thought. But its main objective is to entertain and it certainly does that.
Would I go and see another play by Jessie Eisenburg? I certainly would. Just watch me pushing to the front of the cue for a ticket.
Kinky Boots a new musical directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell at The Adelphi Theatre.
Some years ago I saw the Miramar motion picture, Kinky Boots, on which this show is based. I was interested in it as I used to live in Northampton. The shoe industry used to be big business there. Parents bought factory rejects for their fast-growing children from a plethora of little shops in the outlying districts of the town. I remember one called Lydingtons. Output was reduced when cheap stylish imports from Europe flooded the market. Many of the factories closed down and became offices or warehouses, but some companies survived and specialized in well-made quality shoes for the top end of the market. Tricker’s, founded in 1829, built a worldwide reputation in brogues and walking shoes and still functions today. Many of this firm’s shoes are sold abroad but there is an outlet in Jermyn Street, London. Other remaining companies also continue to produce shoes and boots from quality materials and boast a workforce with specialist skills handed down through the generations.
Kinky Boots, the musical, follows the story of an imaginary company, Price and Son, that falls into trouble when the father dies and the son takes over. At first the son, Charlie Price (Killian Donelly), considers selling the business but eventually tries to resuscitate it. When Lola, a flamboyant drag queen played with gusto by Matt Henry, comes up with idea of making kinky boots for drag shows, the solution to the failing fortunes of the firm appears to have been found..
The production has a fast moving first half with an imaginative set representing the factory made up of moving trucks to show the manufacture of shoes on the assembly line. There are some pertinent performances from members of the workforce that lift the mood. The highlight of the first act is the appearance of Matt Henry as Lola, well supported later on by his fellow drag artists, the Angels. Lola’s big personality dominates the production aided by Cindy Lauper’s punchy music and the choreography that accompanies it.
The plot of how to rebuild the fortunes of the factory drags on (excuse the pun) into the second half with Charlie resisting the obvious solution offered by Lola. The pace slows and the scenes that depict Charlie’s predictable love affairs become tedious. The mismatch of that sentimental song by Lola, “Hold me in your Heart” to the style of the rest of the show is a bit cringe-worthy. I find myself looking forward to the inevitable drag show of the finale. When it arrives, it lifts the mood, as I knew it would, but is over too soon.
I know this musical has been well received by audiences and critics alike and, believe it or not, I did enjoy parts of it too. What makes a musical is the music and Cindy Lauper’s score is tuneful, energetic and uplifting. No wonder members of the audience come out with smiles on their faces.
Maybe because I don’t see many musicals I have forgotten how conventional the plots can be and how one-dimensional the characters, I became bored in the second half. I certainly wouldn’t go to see it again. I didn’t find Charlie Price an engaging protagonist and couldn’t care less if he succeeded in saving the company or not! I think I should have been routing for him.
In retrospect, however, there are plenty of things to admire about this show. for example the set, the music, the choreography and Lola’s larger than life performance. Enough to put a smile on my face too. The song and dance acts with the drag queens are certainly a cut above the often tacky shows offered in Gran Canaria where I live. Ooh, I won’t be welcome in certain bars over here any more….
If I’d only able to see one of these productions which one would I have chosen? After reading the above reviews I think you know the answer to that. Faith Healer.