An archive of our reviews 2018 (Part Three)
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St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson at the Donmar Dryden Street
What's it about? A jaded theatre critic reminisces about his venture into darkness.
What did it have going for it? Conor McPherson (writer); Brendan Coyle (actor); Simon Evens (director) – theatrical triumvirate extraordinaire!
Did we enjoy it? In a year of great tales being told (The Inheritance, The Lehman Trilogy), here we have another by that master of storytelling Conor McPherson (The Weir, etc). It's a mountain of a tale for one actor to climb - two hours to hold us in awe. Set, appropriately site-specific, in the attic of the Donmar's Dryden Street building (Set design: Peter McKintosh), windows covered with old Dublin newspapers, candles glimmering among immersive decrepitude, Brendan Coyle's hypnotic monologue grips us with a seductive intensity. He admits at the start that as a boy he was afraid of the dark and imagined vampires out there; now he is as critical of himself as the theatre people he spitefully destroys with his words; he leaves his family and Dublin haunts to follow a favourite actress to London, but then he strays into the night; what he finds there is partly a nightmare friendship to haunt him (yes, there are vampires) but essentially a life-affirming tale to mesmerise us. The atmosphere created by the most subtle changes in light (Lighting Design: Matt Daw) and soundscape (Sound Design: Christopher Shutt) enhance every word – there's not a moment when the tension slackens or the mind wanders – this is total attention-demanding story-telling of the highest order, recalling those night-time tales we were read as a child, but here given the perspective of a life experienced and ultimately the hope of what life can offer.
Our Rating: 5/5
Would the Group have booked? We can't take the Group up into the Domar's attic but individually you would be glued to your seat.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Put your mind to it and you will reap its reward.
Group Appeal: 4/5
Hogarth’s Progress: The Art of Success and The Taste of the Town by Nick Dear,
at the Rose Theatre, Kingston
What's it about? The two plays, in a day-long double bill, trace Hogarth’s development as a young, struggling artist to his later life as a recognised member of the Royal Academy.
What did it have going for it? We can’t resist a theatrical marathon, and we like to support the Rose Theatre. It’s an interesting subject, with a near-local connection to Kingston (Hogarth lived in Chiswick). And the cast – Keith Allen, Bryan Dick, Mark Umbers, Ruby Bentall and Sylvestra Le Touzel – would have sold out the Donmar, the Royal Court or the Dorfman.
Did we enjoy it? The first play, The Art of Success, dates from 1986, and Nick Dear has returned to the life of Hogarth only very recently. Together, the two plays create vignettes from the artist’s career, rather like Hogarth himself did in The Rake’s Progress or Marriage a la Mode. They’re both lively plays (with a few longuers) considering the function of art and the volatile nature of critical appraisal. Dear doesn’t skimp on the debauchery of the times, either.
Each play focuses on the creation of one work of art - in the first, Hogarth works on the portrait of a woman condemned to be hanged (a crackling performance from Jasmine Jones) and in the second, the failure of his ambitious work, Sigismunda. This device leads to a disquisition on the morality of the artist in using other peoples’ lives, and to the value placed on art by society. Bryan Dick is an appealing younger. Hogarth (how lovely to see a naked man’s body unblemished by tattoos!) and Keith Allen seizes the opportunity to show a more cynical, reprobate artist.
The Taste of the Town contains two scenes destined to become classics: Emma Cunliffe and Sylvestra Le Touzel spar in a coffee-house as society ladies, and later Hogarth has a lengthy debate with Horace Walpole (an epicene Ian Hallard) on the nature of art. Director Anthony Banks and designer Andrew D Edwards presented a handsome and clear production that made good use of the Rose’s problematic space.
Our Rating: 3.5/5
Would the Group have booked? Kingston is a long way from Southend!
Would the group have enjoyed it? Yes, I think so, though I think they would have got slightly restless (as I did) with the prolonged final scene.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Addendum to Mike’s recent price watch: The Rose has an open space at the front of the stalls, where the audience can sit on cushions on the floor for a minimal admission fee. As Kingston is a university town, this is ideal for students or the unwaged. Yet every time I’ve been to the Rose, this space is occupied by fairly obviously comfortably-off people who think it’s wonderful to see a play for the lowest possible expenditure.
Well, it isn’t. It costs money to create art (as Hogarth demonstrates) and actors and technicians must be paid. And the Rose Theatre is constantly under threat of closure from the Conservative members of the council (which currently has a LibDem majority). It’s an enterprising theatre, and could be even more so, given the support it deserves from the community. Skimping on the admission price does not invest in the long-term interests of the theatre, and shows that sector of the audience to be self-absorbed and cheap. "What fun to pretend we're poor students again" I don't think.
Porgy & Bess by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
at the Coliseum (dress rehearsal)
Whats it about? Set in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1920/30s, the black community of residents of Catfish Row, on the waterfront, live out a tough life with many dependent on the sea, either as fishermen or stevedores. Gambling and drug-taking feature large in the story with murder, betrayal and violence following as a result. The titular characters are Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess who is left to fend for herself when her man, Crown, murders a fellow craps player while high on drugs. Porgy offers a sanctuary to Bess but she finds it hard to resist Crown when he reappears or Sporting Life, a dope peddler, when he tries to entice her to join him. Throughout we hear the story of the principal characters through songs, many of which are very familiar (e.g. Summertime, I Loves you, Porgy, It Aint Necessarily So).
What did it have going for it? This is a co-production by the English National Opera with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and Dutch National Opera with most of the roles taken by American artists including Eric Greene as Porgy and Nicole Cabell as Bess. In addition John Wilson, yes, the John Wilson, is making his ENO debut as conductor.
Did we enjoy it? We did and in that we were joined by several parties of school children in the upper circle who didnt hold back in their feelings! There is a proviso though. When this was written in 1935, George Gershwin described this as a folk opera, with new songs and spirituals, and it is, as they say of its time in the way the characters behave and the language they are required to use. In what we hope are more enlightened times, all of this now jars somewhat and can seem dreadfully patronising. Over the years many artists, such as Harry Belafonte, have turned down offers to perform a role and others have been critical of the degree of stereotyping portrayed. As a vehicle for some wonderful songs and performances it is very enjoyable but the way the underlying story is constructed, less so. However, seldom has the stage been so well used and we have the entire space used to create tenement buildings and a courtyard with skeleton structures allowing us to see inside each room. This creates an intimate atmosphere at times and gives added support to the unfolding story of each character or pairing. Despite this being a dress rehearsal, when artists may choose to conserve their voices, the calibre of the singing was superb.
Would the Group have enjoyed it? They would and no matter how familiar, or not, one might be with the story of Porgy and Bess, the songs and the emotions roused by the story make an impact.
Group Appeal: 4/5
The Woods by Robert Alan Evans, at The Royal Court, Upstairs
What's it about? A journey through breakdown, maybe.
What did it have going for it? Lesley Sharp – I wish I could say more.
Did we enjoy it? If you go down to the woods today you're sure of a big surprise...or maybe a shock. And really I don't know what to make of this arboreal onslaught. Here we have a Before and After looming large, but before and after what – apocalypse, trauma, infanticide, breakdown? A deafening soundscape of crashing and rumbling and scraping punctuates brief scenes around a shack in the titular woods, with a child's toys hidden beneath leaves. Woman is shacked up with Boy; various other characters visit, all personified by Wolf. The clues slowly appear, very slowly appear, tediously and reluctantly appear. There's shouting, there's pain, there's occasional humour but it's mainly protracted obfuscation. There's a scene by a motorway and another in a pristine fitted kitchen with 'woods' in its cupboards. It's all a journey, maybe from madness, and maybe I got there in the end. Or maybe I didn't. Bravery awards to Lesley Sharp and Tom Mothersdale for persevering, and to us for surviving a very long 85 minutes. But I did enjoy the moment the shack burst into real flames.
Our Rating: 1.5/5 (Mainly for the elaborate wooded set and the actors' conviction.)
Would the Group have booked? No
Would the group have enjoyed it? No
Group Appeal: 0/5
Pinter 2: The Lover and The Collection by Harold Pinter,
at the Harold Pinter Theatre
What's it about? The Lover: A married couple enact a fantasy life in which she has a lover, and he has a mistress. The Collection: A man becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife slept with another man while on a business trip. The other man is in a gay relationship. His partner is enraged. As it’s Pinter, we never find out what’s real and what isn’t. Both plays feature unusual relationships which only gradually become apparent - yes, very 'Pinter'.
What did it have going for it? This is the second programme in the season of Harold Pinter’s shorter works, and we’re trying to collect the set. This one boasted David Suchet, Russell Tovey, Hayley Squires and John MacMillan in the cast.
Did we enjoy it? A qualified Yes. Both plays were presented as comedies: The Lover recalled the recent Home, I’m Darling in its garish setting and artificial style of playing, and I enjoyed it – but not as much as in an earlier production of this double-bill at the same address. The Collection was well cast but less focused in both style and presentation. Both plays, though they were entertaining and expertly performed, seemed to have less substance than when previously seen.
Our Rating: 3/5
Would the Group have booked? I’m sure David Suchet would have been a draw.
Would the group have enjoyed it? They’d probably have liked The Lover more than The Collection.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Stories by Nina Raine at the National: Dorfman Theatre
What's it about? When you're a woman, 39, single, and feeling maternal, what are your options for having a baby?
What did it have going for it? A new play by Nina Raine (author of Consent- National and West End) with the wonderful Claudie Blakely in the lead.
Did we enjoy it? Tick tock, tick tock goes the biological clock – time is running out for becoming a mum and there's no man to oblige. Buy sperm on the internet, ask a friend, or advertise for a willing partner, and if so will the baby have the right genes? Or just give up that wish because life as a singleton can be so fancy free? It's not a laughing matter and yet Nina Raine has the knack of giving us much laughter while being able to turn in an instant to a heartfelt emotional situation. With Claudie Blakley in the lead, anguishing over her problem and her options, she is the perfect actor with warmth and charm to win us over (yes, even us men!) and make her problems ours too. As an outsider, it's an involving, educational (!) and entertaining pathway to tread, and we meet a variety of possible donors along the way. They are all played by the exceptional Sam Troughton, switching through earnest artist, raving popster, precious actor, ex-boyfriend, and gay would-be father,with amusing ease. Margot Leicester and Stephen Boxer are the older generation. It's a spare traverse staging with multifunctional cubes sliding on and off, slick and effective. You'll find plenty to engage and think about after, without feeling got at at all. And I mean that in a positive way even though others may think the subject warrants a more earnest approach – I disagree. This one's a must for anyone who ever did or didn't want offspring – and I mean you!
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? Possibly more women than men would anticipate (wrongly) that it's a play only for them whereas it has wide appeal. Certainly I recommend it.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Totally...but it's only playing to the end of November. Let's hope for a well deserved transfer, but with seats aplenty still available this seems doubtful.
Group Appeal: 4/5