Wild Oats

By John O’Keeffe, Bristol Old Vic

Wild laughs with Wild Oats

O for a muse of fire! With a multi-million renovation, the Bristol Old Vic opens with a play constantly aware of its theatrical identity. Embracing the full possibilities of the theatre, Wild Oats is a 1791 meta-theatre experience. Set around the lives of actors and theatre we are always aware that we are watching a piece of theatre.

Just as the Old Vic has been revived to its eighteenth-century Georgian splendour, director Mark Rosenblatt revives an eighteenth-century comedy with imagination and hilarity, from Jack’s first prologue cry of “Let them know you’re coming” to visual montages such as a wonderfully creative motorcycle chase and a King Lear-esque thunderstorm.

Packed with Shakespearean quotes, O’Keeffe’s plot of mistaken identity and love across the divide also pays homage to the Bard’s comedies.

Set amongst the austere world of 1950’s touring theatres, Jack Rover (played with charming vitality by Sam Alexander) is a high-spirited actor who is mistaken for the son of Sir George Thunder. Before his true identity is discovered, via a convoluted tale of confusion, Jack has saved a man from ruin, fallen in love, been united with his real parents and gained an inheritance.

Amongst the sometimes complicated farce, O’Keeffe is defending and crying ‘all hail’ for theatre. Commenting on religious and especially Quaker fickleness, he portrays the theatre-hating Quaker, Ephraim Smooth (Philip Bird), as a hypocritical sexual deviant. Similarly, his daughter Lady Amaranth (Jo Herbert) isn’t too slow in discarding her Quaker robes in her desire for our hero.

Although reluctant to pick out individuals from a wonderful cast, applause has to go to Sam Alexander as the energetic extemporising Jack. Equally, Hugh Skinner is perfectly hilarious as the fraught and often melodramatic errant son, Harry Thunder. However this is an ensemble piece with all actors contributing to the playfulness, the piano underscore, and designer, Ben Stones’, set changes.

The cast are aided by the intelligently restored Old Vic, with its original 1766 thrust stage design and improved sight lines allowing audience and actor intimacy and a relationship reminiscent of the Shakespearean theatre.

Wild Oats celebrates the joy of theatre and is a perfect choice to celebrate a new era at the Bristol Old Vic

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The Cherry Orchard

by Anton Chekhov (translated by Stephen Mulrine): Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

IT’S OFFICIAL: those who accuse Chekhov’s plays of being dreary and devoid of plot are wrong.

Packed into two hours, Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, portrays the tensions of a rapidly changing Russia, unable to avoid modernisation; a collapse in the power of nobility and its consequences; an expanding middle-class of liberated serfs; profound, passionate characters and… humour.

In contradiction to the playwright’s intention, the original 1904 director, Stanislavski (yes, that Stanislavski) decided to interpret the play as a tragedy. Although debate continues about defining the play as tragedy or comedy, SATTF director Andrew Hinton believes that both can exist together.

The tragedy is the fall of the old ruling order and the defiance by some to acknowledge this. Memory stalls the progress of matriarch Mme Ranevskaya (Julia Hills) and Uncle Gayev (Christopher Bianchi) who linger on the past. Peasant turned self-made businessman, Lopakhin, explains with arm flailing desperation their financial predicament; their options either converting the estate and its titular cherry orchard or selling up. Simon Armstrong dominates the space as the apparent family saviour, the voice of reason, before turning gleeful avenger, securing the property on which his own family was once the suffering serf.

Julia Hills gives the fragile and erratic Mme Ranevskaya a fizziness that hides a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The moment she sees her dead son’s Tutor her distress is palpable. Hills is sensitive and graceful, emanating a child-like spirit, despite at times slipping into an imitation of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous.

The comedy (including some slapstick falls) comes from the diverse characters and the cultural clash of old and new orders. Student Trofimov, with a considered performance from Benjamin O’Mahony, exhorts the value of work in contrast to the leisurely and snooty Gayev. Trofimlov is a stoic idealist, while Gayev absurdly mimes playing billiards with idle disdain. The aging Pischik (Roland Oliver) is the eternal optimist and mischievous scrounger; Firs is the dithering and mumbling old manservant, played with gentle warmth by Paul Nicholson; and Yepikhodov (Paul Brendan) is the lovesick accident-prone clerk complete with squeaky shoes.

Standout performance comes from Dorothea Myer-Bennett whose wonderfully layered Varya suppresses pain and powerlessness behind feigned smiles and longing eyes. Myer-Bennett evokes a veil of bubbling emotion as Varya lives her own tragedy; completely in the arms of fate, her future depends on the cherry orchard estate and a possible marriage proposal from Lopakhin.

The Tobacco Factory’s stark staging is a fitting allegory for the crumbling aristocratic affluence. There’s nothing ostentatious here, just the odd symbols, such as a bookcase, of a once materialistic shallowness

As the lights dim to the sound of the woodman’s axe Andrew Hinton’s production leaves us pondering with which of the wonderfully layered Chekhov’s character’s we should empathise.

Richard II

by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

With Andrew Hilton’s taught direction and John Heffernan’s sensitive childlike King Richard, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s production of the tragic Richard II vividly presents the inevitable downfall of a naïve ruler.

Shakespeare’s history is a skilfully crafted story of the last days of Richard’s reign. The ill-advised decisions Richard makes in settling an argument between cousin Bolingbroke and Lord Mowbray and then ceasing the former’s Lancastrian inheritance lead to the usurpation of his crown and ultimately his death.

A divinely appointed King is reduced to a mere mortal. This is a tragedy. The King has a fatal flaw. But is the flaw his ability to make poor impetuous decisions or his ability to unwisely trust his advisors?

John Heffernan’s Richard displays a capricious personality, like a hormonal adolescent: often immature and rash, screeching either in enthusiasm or anger; a duality of sympathy or cold-heartedness. We are appalled both with Richard’s lack of grief upon the death of the his long-trusted uncle John of Gaunt and the joy he displays in ceasing his estate to fund the doomed Irish wars; we are then touched by his bewilderment and pitiable isolation after the loss of his crown.

Although awkward as a vengeful Bolingbroke, determined to take back his rightful inheritance, Matthew Thomas sensitively portrays his apprehension in usurping the English crown. Central to the tragedy and underlining the narrative is the belief, historically and in Shakespeare’s own time, in the King’s divine right to rule. No matter how tyrannical a king, is it ever right to usurp God’s representative on earth?

This is the turmoil facing the loyal Duke of York, gracefully played by Roland Oliver. He lucidly evokes York’s wrangling doubts about Bolinbroke’s illegal usurpation and the conflict about where his loyalty lays. This reaches a thrilling climax upon the discovery of his son Aumerle’s (Oliver Millingham) treasonable plot when York, knowing it would mean death for his son, chooses loyalty to the new King Henry IV.

Scenes from Richard II

Amongst the deft plot of double-crossing and vengeance there is humour too. For example in Heffernan’s juvenile playfulness as Richard, starkly contrasting the ideas of mature kingship, or when the duel scene builds into a preposterous wrangling of counter-accusations of treachery with every man in turn throwing down their gauntlets.

Benjamin Whitrow and Julia Hills bring aging stature to the roles of Gaunt and the Ladies of Gloucester and York. Hills is touching in dual roles of mournful yet unforgiving widow and mother desperately defending her condemned son. Whitrow carries the usual loaded expectation with Gaunt’s ‘this sceptred isle’ speech – Richard II’s ‘To be or not to be’ – but brings enough lamentation for us to forget we know how this speech should be played.

Supporting actors fit seamlessly into the action. Perhaps too inconspicuously. And this is one regretful omission. Part of Richard’s tragedy is the possible puppet-mastering of his advisors Bushy, Bagot and Greene. One is left pondering that director Hilton could have explored how much of their surreptitious power was responsible for Richard’s downfall, thus exploiting another fatefully tragic facet of Shakespeare’s play.

After twelve seasons this is SATTF’s first history play. Hilton’s production wonderfully mixes the sweeping narrative of a history with the intimacy of a single man’s tragic downfall that effectively begins the War of the Roses. Let’s hope this company adds further histories to their repertoire.

The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Shakespeare’s comedy of long-lost brothers and mistaken identity came from a tradition of the fast-paced Roman classical comedies of Plautus and Terence. Whilst retaining the farcical elements Shakespeare added a darker thread both in the themes of lost family and marriage infidelity and in his poignant language.

The Comedy of Errors

The difficulty in beginning this ‘comedy’ is the sombre first scene. Egeon is condemned to death for being in his enemy’s city-state and his long narrative of how he came to be there is crucial to setting up the rest of the play and is essential in drawing in the audience. Unfortunately the new production by the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company stumbles at the first pratfall. David Collins’s Egeon relates his perilous shipwreck and wretched loss of his family as though he’d been told tickets to the Cup Final were sold out. The staid opening scene is further compromised by the unnessary naturalistic stage furniture: the Duke sits trapped behind an ornate desk, packed with redundant stationary. Contrary to the Tobacco Factory’s simplicity of space, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s own theatre, these cumbersome props overwhelm the language and story, essential to the rest of the evening.

Similarly, the melancholy opening scene needs an energy to lift spirirts but there was a lack-lustre entrance of the newly-landed Syracusan Antipholus (Dan Winter) and then of his ‘slave’ Dromio (Richard Neale), who edges on stage like a member of the audience creeping back from the toilet.

However, all is not lost. Gradually actors and plot seem to cohere and the energy of Shakepseare’s scene structure pick up the pace as each moment of mistaken identity builds confusion, frustration and tension. The Dromio twins Neale and Gareth Kennerley warm to their roles as the evening evolves; their growing confusion and instant horror at the abuse they receive from their ‘masters’ suitably amusing. Neale especially displays clever comic timing; his disgust and terror of the mysterious fat lady with ideas of marriage is particularly hilarious, discriptions such as “her nose all o’er embellished with rubies and carbuncles” wonderfully related.

SATTF's The Comedy of Errors

The ‘master-servant’ characters come from a long classical and Commedia delle’arte tradition of class hierarchy and physical slapstick. Unfortunately there there was a lack of chemistry between both sets of Antipholus and Dromio. While the Dromios showed more physical commitment as the night went on Dan Winter’s Syracusan Antipholus seemed lost and stiff as the romantic visitor and Matthew Thomas’s native Antipholus was physically awkward. Nevertheless, all actors maintained a sense of bewilderment to earn our sympathy and the touching brotherly reunion in the final scene is wonderfully felt by Winter and Thomas.

There is a stand-out performance of the evening from Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Adriana who brings wonderful depth to the ‘cheated’ wife. Amongst the farcical misunderstanding of her husband’s extra-marital shenanikins Myer-Bennett evokes a poignant sub-text of sorrow and heartbreak. The conflict of expunged suspicions and apparent Courtesan (Kate Kordel) relations is evoked with touching inner dejection.

The hesitant beginning has long been forgotten as the mixture of farcical comedy and dark poignancy is built to a climax and all misunderstandings suitably explained. This is an early Shakespeare play but his dramatic skill, eloquent word-play, and subtle pathos lifts it out of the common run of farcical comedy and director Andrew Hilton’s production gives us an amusing if not hilarious evening.

Ghosts

By Henrik Ibsen: Duchess Theatre, London

It is inevitable that any production of Ibsen’s Ghosts will not produce the shock of its first staging in 1882. The adultery, sexual disease, and spiritual rejection had more sordid punch than could be affected today. But the themes of hidden truths, haunting memory, broken dreams and assisted suicide remain poignant and relevant.

With the ten-year memorial of the late Captain Alving and the return from Paris of prodigal son Oswald, dark concealed secrets are soon revealed. The truth of the Alving marriage; why Mrs Alving had scandalised the town by once deserting the family home and why she sent her only son away to school are painfully revealed in tangibly tense scenes between Lesley Sharp and Iain Glen as Pastor Mandors. And the horrid dilemma Oswald forces upon his mother reminds us of the recent euthanasia cases and the pained decisions faced by family members of their dying loved ones. Cries of “I gave life to you” from the mother and “Can you watch me suffer?” from the son are painfully pertinent today. 

Lesley Sharp is sublime as the haunted widow. She enters loaded down with emotional turmoil hidden beneath a composed but taut physicality. Mrs Alving’s tortured struggle with her past, with the ghosts “not just of our fathers and mothers but the ghosts within us all”, and her tragic choice of helping her son to end his misery are tightly evoked by Sharp. As each veil of history is torn asunder, Sharp remains on the edge until the shattering, revealing finale. 

Photo: John Haynes

Harry Treadway as the syphilis-stricken Oswald seemed somewhat dazed in the early stages, staring like a bewildered Meerkat. But his conflict with ‘the sins of the father’ and the final scene with Sharp and the revelation of his condition are tenderly played. Jessica Raine is suitably innocent as Regina, whose own vanquished dreams of love and marriage are heartbreaking.

Iain Glen’s Pastor is a powerful presence of judgemental piety. He cries disdain at any hint of immorality; from Mrs Alving’s reading matter to her once desperate attempt to flee her adulterous husband. One problem is that, whilst Ibsen’s religious cynicism would have caused a furore upon its inception, there is a sense that the Pastor’s actions have become comical. That’s more to do perhaps with the anachronistic sentiments – late nineteenth-century doctrine often sits awkwardly in the early twenty-first century – and the Pastor’s pious hypocrisy and gasps of abhorrence when faced with any acts of immorality raised more than a few sniggers. His faith that the new orphanage needs no building insurance because a ‘higher presence’ will intervene raises an ironic snigger too, as does his sanctimonious statement that we are not born to be happy but to do our duty – the duty that traps Mrs Alving with an unfaithful husband and emotional isolation.

This is not helped by Franks McGuiness’s new version of Ibsen’s tragedy. His text occasionally lacks subtlety. He beacons the symbolism as though we were incapable of reading the intricacies of Ibsen’s original. Repetition of the word “ghosts”, for example, means he may as well have written the metaphor in large letters on the walls of designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set. Similarly Iain Glen’s direction, whilst tight, allows the performance to sometimes slide into melodrama. The final tableau is held painfully too long.

Despite the flaws, this new staging, remains compelling. The pace of Glen’s direction had such control that one feels the interval was an unnessary interruption. Thanks to Lesley Sharp’s engrossing performance as the suffering Mrs Alving, Iain Glen’s confident Pastor Manders, and the ghost of Ibsen still present, this is a worthy production. 

The Little Dog Laughed

by Douglas Carter Beane: Garrick Theatre, London 

Any film buff or, more particularly, any gossip-column reader knows about the rumoured secrecy of certain Hollywood actors and their sexuality. Names (unmentionable here) are bandied about regarding their personal preferences and apparently, if the truth were revealed, how their careers would suffer. Douglas Carter Beane approaches this scenario in his comedy at the Garrick Theatre The Little Dog Laughed

Tamsin Greig and Rupert Friend: photo Tristram Kenton

 

Young actor Mitchell (Rupert Friend) has a bright future in Hollywood. However, he is gay. Mitchell’s agent Diane (Tamsin Greig) fears public knowledge of his sexuality will be the ruin of his career – and a disaster for her. Therefore the actor must remain in the closet. Unfortunately her client falls in love with rent-boy Alex (Harry Lloyd) and wants to make his sexuality public. In a parallel plot agent Diane is in negotiations for Mitchell to star in a movie about two gay men. In order to make her client a movie star, however, Diane insists that the screenwriter changes the script to a heterosexual ending. This is life imitating art.

This is also mere sit-com. Despite occasionally witty moments the script has very little endearing qualities. The characters lack depth. The love affair between the two men is feeble to the point of emotional inertia. There is no scope for empathy because Carter Beane creates a relationship that is more about the men being gay and having gay-sex rather than creating a story about two people falling in love and being torn apart by Hollywood’s hypocrisy.  

All is not lost. The evening is single-handedly saved by the master-of-ceremonies performance of Tamsin Greig. Agent Diane has manipulative charm that Milton’s Satan would have been proud of and Grieg portrays her exquisitely. She shows natural composure and comic timing and revels in her omnipotent scheming. Just as Diane controls the life of her client, Greig controls her monologues to the audience with calculated charisma.

Harry Lloyd as Alex

However, the young actors are uncomfortable with the fast paced dialogue. They shout far too much, speak in a monotonous tone for large sections, and mistake a sharp response to cue lines for mere speed, firing their lines at each other like paparazzi flash bulbs at a film premiere – with no less irritation. Director Jamie Lloyd must take some responsibility.

There is a certain irony perhaps in that a theatre production set within the movie industry has actors vocally inadequate. It is so irritating that we eagerly wait for the return on stage of Tamsin Greig.

Gemma Arterton as Ellen, Alex’s girlfriend, admirably attempts warmth and tries to explore emotional depth but is forced to repeat the acting device of reaching the precipice of tears before holding back. Friend and Lloyd suffer for character inadequacies and we therefore have little regard for their doomed relationship.  

Gemma Arterton as Ellen
Carter Beane’s strength is in satire and he cleverly evokes a cynical view of Hollywood and the concept of the film star. This is evident in his smart denouement when puppet-master Diane adroitly manipulates the final outcome. Just as she slyly persuades the young protégés to follow her preferred conclusion, so too she persuades the unseen writer to rewrite the screenplay to her specification. Just as she gets her ‘straight’ finale in art so does she in life as Mitchell, in return for fame and fortune, continues to deny his true self and ends up marrying Ellen.

The Little Dog Laughed could have tackled the world of hypocrisy and homophobia with more bravura. Instead this is a shallow comedy in which we are left rooting for the character that perpetuates the problem.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Tennessee Williams: Novello Theatre, London.   

There was a feline fest last night with a fiery cat and bad-tempered lion pacing the Novello stage. Sanaa Lathan and James Earl Jones as the respective cat and lion stand out in Tennessee Williams’s play of simmering and searing family tensions.

Sanaa Lathan and James Earl Jones: photo Tristram Kenton
To mention director Debbie Allen’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has an all-black cast seems irrelevant. This is a universal family. Dysfunctional. A cauldron of lies, denials, and frustrated sexuality. Allen’s direction skilfully evokes the strained and pained relationships of Williams’s masterpiece.

With the action shifting from 1955 to the 1980s we can now accept the premise of an affluent African-American family. And, despite our memories believing that the eighties were more accepting of a gay man, there was still the palpable tension in Brick’s oppressed sexuality.

First seen on Broadway last year, a London audience can now witness the powerful presence of James Earl Jones who bestrides the stage like a colossus, reprising his magnificent Broadway performance as the terminally ill patriarch, Big Daddy. At times Jones superbly hovers between tyrannic control and masculine, ailing, vulnerability; his contemptuous disregard for the rest of his family and tender attempts at reconciliation with Brick are skilfully controlled. However, Jones does growl and snap like a lion with more than just a thorn in his paw, occasionally receiving inappropriate laughter from the audience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre
Sanaa Lathan’s as Maggie sensuouslyleads the way in a sexy and hypnotic opening scene, oozing frustration. We feel her dispossession, both in her need for physical companionship and in her childlessness, as well as her desperation to save a doomed relationship with her husband. Adrian Lester begins awkwardly; his Brick, with his self-loathing turmoil and retreat into alcoholism, comes across as a brooding bore with a little too much self-pity. It is not until act two and the fraught father-son confrontation that Lester raises his game. This must be due, in some way, to the influence of Earl Jones. The two now complement each other in their personal battles to deny what Williams termed the “inadmissible thing”. The tension builds boldly, delving through the depths of denial between Brick’s latent sexuality and Big Daddy’s fatal illness, and reaches a revelatory climax.

In the style of a Synge drama there were moments of comedy relieving the pressurised atmosphere in Williams’s tragic milieu. Traditionalists may feel this was out of place, but with a wonderful supporting cast, particularly from Phylicia Rashad as the long-suffering Big Mama and Peter de Jersey as the ill-favoured Gooper, the heat suitably simmersand boils to the curtain.