It is always a dilemma, for those of us who despise star-ratings as a measuring device, when a 90 minute play seems set fair to earn three, or three-and-a-bit, trundling along amusingly but not life-changing or extremely hilarious, and then zaps you in the last few minutes. With a twist, a reverse-ferret U-turn on the twist, and then a bravura final line which throws doubt on the whole lot.
This pleasing trick is pulled off by Jordi Galceran in a play born in Barcelona and translated by Anne-Garcia Romero with later tweaks, some from the Broadway director BT McNicholl. It’s been in 60 countries in 20 languages. It has struck a note. Which, among other things, cheeringly displays how widely in the corporate working world people fear and despise human-resources psychologists and tricksy interview techniques…
For the setting of the play is a small conference room, against skyscraper windows, in a Fortune 500 company in New York. Four candidates wait for a group interview. It’s a high-powered sales job and they’re all ambitious. Three are men, which just about reflects the 25% presence of women in such posts. Frank, the first arrival, is a rangy, arrogant alpha male (Jonathan Cake), followed by cherubic Carl (Greg McHugh) who happens to know Melanie (Laura Pitt-Pulford) from college days. And there’s Rick (John Gordon Sinclair) who tries to be friendly with the impassive, grumpy Frank and offers Tic-Tacs all round.
But no interviewer comes. Instead, a robotic filing drawer in the corner opens and delivers them “challenges” to test their interaction, role-play, reaction to stress and strategic reasoning. Galceran assures us that all the increasingly preposterous manoeuvres perpetrated by this multinational HR psych department are drawn from life. Though maybe not all at once. Being a serious researcher-critic I took along a friend , a scarred veteran of several companies, Harvard Business School and the Institute of Directors,. With a gulp she assures me this is how it is. Manipulative, often infantile, and profoundly disrespectful of the human workforce .
But it is for that reason often very funny, with spoutings of corporate jargon (“Profit is everything. But people are everything too”) and fine bursts of ill-tempered distrustfulness (Cake is wonderfully aggressive ,with nice comic timing). Pitt-Pulford as the only woman shakes out some of of the sexist prejudices but other more arcane ones start to emerge as bits of personal live are exacted by the challenges. No spoilers, but there’s a lot of lying going on. |And over the whole operation hovers the question as to whether such a company really wants “a good man who looks like a sonofabitch or a sonofabitch who looks like a good man”? Don’t answer that…
After a slight slowing-down it roars forward into U-turns , revelations and one very strong and nicely nasty scene between Cake and Pitt-Pulford. And the fourth mouse, shudderingly pleased to be too much of a rodent even for the corporate world, staggers towards the prize..
box office 0207 378 1713 to 7 july
THE NEW ERA BEGINS…
Here’s a vulnerable Hamlet: a lonely lad in proper tearful grief and disappointment at his mother’s remarriage. A Hamlet who, in feigning madness, loses his grip for a while on sense and kindness; whose treatment of Ophelia we can wince at but understand. Above all it is a Hamlet whose progress through the switchback of grief and anger and self-doubt and superstition and affection is diamond-precise, driven by the text. His final brief adult nobility where “readiness is all” is all the more effective for that. I have seen more spectacular Hamlets and more arresting ones, but few with such intimate, credible accuracy in the arc of his suffering and resolution.
This Hamlet is a woman, Michelle Terry. Horatio is female too, as is Marcellus, and Laertes is the tiny, sparky Bettrys Jones. On the other hand Ophelia is a man: Shubham Saraf, with a delicate and touching performance but also an uncompromisingly schoolboy short-back-and-sides above the ballgown, standing a head taller than her brother or Hamlet. Rosencrantz – looking a bit old to be a schoolmate -is a conventionally bearded Pearce Quigley, but Guildenstern is Nadia Nadarajah , who is Deaf : she communicates with sprightly good humour in BSL -British Sign Language – to which Hamlet responds skilfully and Rosencrantz sometimes translates.
This production is a key moment in Michelle Terry’s new role as Artistic Director of the Globe, after the less than happy departure of Emma Rice. And power to her: not only kicking off with two plays (often running on the same day, as yesterday) but using a hefted, identical company for both, and in the second playing Hamlet. I call that leading from the front.
I missed the As You Like It, in which she took a smaller part. But towards dusk saw Hamlet. Terry has made it clear that in casting she plans 50:50 gender equality and greater diversity; she also runs rehearsals more startlingly open to outsiders than most actors have ever known. The actors, composer, choreographer, two directors ( Federay Holmes and Elle While) and the designer Ellan Parry are equal partners, she says, and use rehearsal as a “test tube” of experimentation. With Parry by the way we are instructed to use only the pronoun “they”, though there is only one of they. Fine but confusing: I prefer “xi” myself..
Do not flinch. Gender politics are in the air, women do need a better break in theatre, and there is a place for free thinking collaboration. As a fine and seasoned actor and scholarly Shakespearean – but not a director – Michelle Terry might as well rattle the cages of the old school “auteur-director” with a personal vision of a classic. That, after all, has lately led to a couple of quite tiresome Macbeths. But as an audience we too are in the experiment and collaboration. And for all the engagement and skill, for all the leader’s strong Hamlet, the fine blaring trumpets and stellar performances like Helen Schlesinger’s Gertrude, Colin Hurley’s Ghost and a wonderful, slyly funny Poloniusn from Richard Katz, there are moments which jar.
For, this humbly collaborative audience member ventures to say, it jars when the physical casting and mixed costumes impede the storytelling, slow us down, make the watcher think “ah, another 21c sensibility there!” rather than feeling the line of the tragedy. Honestly, get rid of that bobble hat in the battlement scene, tone down the clown suit sooner, restrict some of the BSL moments. We need to be transported and the Globe, with the pulsing energy of the groundlings , can do that better than many. Interestingly, there was far less interaction with the groundlings than we are used to here, and that matters ( Terry’s Hamlet is better at it than anyone else. She knows how to Globe-it from earlier performances).
And one should not have to feel sheer relief when the gravedigger is not another modishly diverse gesture but just Colin Hurley again, curmudgeonly male in a hi-vis vest, 100% proof traditional as Shakespeare would remember. Terry does no arms-length skull-work but just hops into the new-dug muddy grave beside him. The prince’s memories of Yorick are properly affecting. Moments like that stay with you as strongly as the jerky 21c devices. May there be many more .
box office 0207 401 9919
to 26 aug
BOW, BOW! THEY’RE ON THE ROAD AGAIN..
It must be nearly five years since Sasha Regan’s all-male Iolanthe at Wiltons’ caused me to break a lifelong resistance and enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan. So – on the far side of Cal McCrystal’s fabulously funny ENO production this year, with the ENO chorus ladies tripping hither and thither with glorious thumps, it was an act of homage to go back to this revival of the Regan boys’-own version as it sets out on its 2018 tour. It’s tripped down compared to the Coliseum one, of course, with simply a pit pianist (presumably Richard Baker the musical director) and the simplest of props and sets.
And in its cheerful way, it’s almost as glorious. Once again Regan frames it as a lads’ adventure in a cluttered attic and wardrobe: they creep on with torches in the dark during the overture, and fool around with costumes from old trunks. But one, sitting intent alone stage left, seems to have found an old score of Iolanthe and got engrossed… It’s a lovely idea, though I humbly offer one tiny note: in a substantial theatre – like this one, way bigger than Wiltons – the audience need a bit more light and a moment to notice that detail. My companion, new to the production, didn’t see the score moment at all.
But once the cast get going they’re a joy: more ambitious in dancing than last time (excellent balletic-mimetic movement choreographed by Mark Smith) and vocally strong, managing the female parts well, from the prevailing falsetto to a nice counter-tenory soprano from Joe Henry as Phyllis, an elegant Iolanthe in Christopher Finn and a remarkable contralto from Richard Russell Edwards’ Fairy Queen.
The words – vital as ever, satirically romantic or elegant patter – are excellently clear and the physicality hilarious. When Russell Edwards asks plaintively about the banished Iolanthe “Who taught me to curl inside a buttercup?” you snort. When the chorus of willing fairies are decked out in roll-on suspender belts over their rugger shorts, the maternal heart melts with the memory of all those sleepovers when we let the son’s mates loose in the dressing-up box.
As for the Lords, dressing-gowns, the odd crochet blanket and forgotten bygone hats do the business: topee and topper, bowler and boater, a mortarboard for the Lord Chancellor, ta-ran-ta-ra, perfect. The very spirit of play, of disrespectful glee. As I remarked last time, it’s as camp as a flamingo in fishnets. And it works. Leaving the matinée even the most senior of Richmond’s citizens could be seen doing little skips and humming ‘In for a penny, in for a pound, it’s love that makes the world go round”.
box office http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/iolanthe/
Touring to 28 July
SCHLOCK-HORRORWITZ AND HURRAH FOR THE SKELETON
Gotta love the buccaneering quality of west end theatres: the Small Faces musical at the little Ambassadors off Cambridge Circus closed early , and David Haig’s wonderful Pressure doesn’t come in for another fortnight. So a quick pounce by producers hauled in this pocket psycho-thriller by the alarmingly prolific Antony Horowitz ((he of the junior James Bonds and sexed-up Sherlocks, plus TV Foyle’s War). The play has been touring for years in bursts, having just delighted the Isle of WIght: so tell the cast of three they’re coming Up West for a couple of weeks, keep the tickets well under the fifty mark, set up bargain packages and hope for thrilled bums-on-seats.
By serendipity this weary but gallant little theatre is bang next door to that very un-thrilling geriatric landmark, The Mousetrap. So I slithered in. Always worth observing the vagrant, less-celebrated creature that is UK theatre in the wild. Especially when it’s a retro, schlock-horror mystery psycho bamboozle.
I can certainly tell you, hand on heart, it’s better than the one next door. Though I had better be careful, since two-thirds of the cast and the producer are ex mousetrappers, with natural affection for the fusty old beast. This one is set in a psychiatrist’s office in an improbably bijou secure hospital for the criminally insane in Suffolk. A certain artificiality about this is, you find,, part of the delusion under which which one or other – or all three – of the characters are labouring. So is the view through the window, a portrait on the wall which it is worth keeping an eye on, and a full skeleton in a remarkably camp hand-on-hip pose as if saying “Duh! Can he really be a doctor?”.
Added to the usual task of persuading us they’re not actors, the cast have the burden of acting as if they might be acting. On the face of it Styler (Andrew Ryan) is a supercilious true crime author who has arrived, in eyewateringly tight Dad jeans, to persuade Michael Sherwin’s Dr Farquhar to let him interview a serial killer in his custody. An occasional scream in the distance, a strangely tense nurse and an unnerving malfunctioning speaker system create the required traditional loony-bin atmosphere. Not quite the ticket for Mental Health Week, I suppose, but it feeds nicely into two of our favourite worries: fear of psychiatrists, and a conviction that murderous insanity involves devilish superhuman cunning. Blame Anthony Hopkins and his damn fava-beans. Tyler’s fascination with the subject is questioned by the shrink, who lectures him for slightly too long on reformation, psychodrama therapy etc.
Who is deluded, and what is real? What is the significance of this stuff about wisteria and dogs called Goldie ? What is wrong with the presumed nurse (Sarah Wynne Kordas, who valiantly maintains her own confusing is-this-acting-or-acting-as-acting ). What is in that sandwich? Why is Dr Farquhar growing ever more elfin in his manner? Sherwin conveys a powerful air of an accomplished light-comedy actor wondering how far he dares push the camping-up. When he asks “Is this spiralling into farce?” the urge to shout “Oh yes it is!” is extreme. There’s a strait-jacket and some nasty menace (not one for the kids, this). But the skeleton in the corner has, by Act 2, assumed an even more “ooh-Matron” pose with one hand on hip and one in front of his mouth. That won the third mouse, to be honest.
box office 0844 811 2334 to 10 June
THE SHINE AND THE TERROR
It is no bad thing to have your stage hero effectively co-designing the set. Christopher Oram’s recreation of Mark Rothko’s 1950’s studio is a bleak box with a cluttered workbench and frames and pulleys for his vast canvases. It is dominated by the overbearing, majestic, mysteriously edgeless, tragic and challengine reds and blacks of his Seagram- project canvases. Neil Austin’s lighting design, a miracle in itself, makes them glow and threaten, palpate and shiver in just the way the artist eloquently insists in John Logan’s astonishing play. (on which subject, sign the petition now to save stage lighting from a disastrous new regulation, https://tinyurl.com/yafaaqaz , this matters).
Michael Grandage brought it first eight years ago to the Donmar, since when it has enthralled Broadway and the world. To general joy Alfred Molina reprises the part of Rothko, more than ably partnered this time with Alfred Enoch as the skinny, intense, thoughtful young assistant Ken who is his awed skivvy. And finally, after the two years covered in this sharp 90 minutes, his conscience. It is an eloquently entertaining duologue stretching from Nietzsche, Jung, Hamlet , Rembrandt and Turner to the emotional and spiritual point of art, its evolution from figurative to abstract, its inheritance and what Rothko calls the moment when “the child must bash the father” as his abstract-impressionists crushed the Cubists (he feels this until young Ken tells him that the pop-art movement is about “this moment and a little bit tomorrow” so he too must give way. Gracelessly.)
So it could be overtalky, were it not so electrically theatrical and visual as Ken darts around stretching canvases and mixing paints. At one point the pair of them – wild in separate energy and then strangely, balletically together – prime a huge red canvas at speed to an rising operatic theme. Its emotional shape is intensely satisfying too: clashes, revelations, arguments, absurdities , passions and the perennial joyful mystery of genius. Of the way that a terrible self-absorbed curmudgeon can turn his own restless depressions and terrors into something which feeds the world’s spirit for centuries after.
“Not everyone wants art that actually hurts” protests Ken in his great diatribe against the master late on, but sometimes we need it. And it is Ken who persuades Rothko in the end to refuse the swanky, lucrative, fashionable Seagram-building money and keep the pictures – which he did, in 1959. Rothko explains why in one of the smaller but most enjoyable soliloquies in which Molina describes, with pitiless detail, the utter ghastliness – the timelessly pretentious horrific Tina-Brownery – of the smart New York restaurant for which they were commissioned.
Perfect. It is a play of fire and poetry, laughter and rage. An imagined colloquy with its own kind of genius.
box office https://tickets.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/index.asp?ShoID=2420
to 28 July
rating five (extra thematic mouse dedicated to design and lighting. Sorry no lighting mouse, will get Roger to draw one..)
CLEAR YOUNG VOICES FROM A DISTANT PAST
Three children in the 1540’s play in a hay-barn, built fragrant and real in the tiny theatre. One has found a pilgrim medal and they argue about grown-up matters like the “Popish trash” who might have dropped it, and the famous local statue of “Our Lady Gracious” which has been rightly (in the view of the censoriously new-Protestant boy Alexander ) rightly sent to London to be burnt . “The cult of saints is OVER!” he cries. “No one’s is ever allowed a pilgrimage no more”. The other lad, Edward, rather liked the statue. There is a fleeting mention of Ann Boleyn, executed four years earlier : “a whore, but -“ one argues “no friend to the Pope”. The girl Alice is as engaged as the boys, a forthright and confident farm kid.
The clever thing is that in this short, lively opening scene we easily believe that bright 16c children talked of these things: just as now they talk of global warming, refugees, Corbyn or – a dark parallel to come later – of jihadi martyrdom. The three local youth-theatre children carry the opening with conviction, and Joanna Carrick’s dialogue is faultless: naturalistic to a modern ear but with proper Suffolk accents riding archaic idioms and rhythms with ease. Thus when moments later their young adult selves are before us, we are aware both of their characters and their times.
For Protestantism caught light rapidly in these Eastern counties. Alexander, planning a weaver’s career and Flanders travels, has brought an English Testament to read scripture with them: the youngsters are enthralled by the new technology and the sense of holding the real original Word, not tired Catholic “superstition” of statues and ritual. Contempt for Popery has conspiracies being talked of even on the poorest farm. The seafaring town has heard a rumour that the statue of “Mary Gracious” was smuggled to Papist Italy (it’s still there! in Nettuno! Carrick as author-director went to visit it..).
The trio are increasingly at odds. Gentle Ed challenges the ever-fiercer Protestantism of his friend with “Why must you be so heartfelt about everything?”. When Alice’s father dies her grief is lightened by pious Alex’s “Be strong in faith, be not bowed in spirit!” but rather more by Ed’s proposal. At which point I should mention that Isabel Della-Porta, Oliver Cudbill and Ricky Oakley deliver some of the strongest and most honest youthful performances I have seen. Della-Porta in particular carries the centrally tragic role of the real Alice Driver with remarkable dignity and fire.
The young pair work together, laugh and joke and matchmake (a very funny scene) for the earnest Alex. But the wider story is darkening. The boy-king Edward dies in 1553, Jane Grey lasts nine days, then Catholic Mary, Bloody Mary, has her five years’ terror. It bore very heavily on this region with its staunchly stubborn protestants. When the happy couple come in exhausted and covered in black soot from the stubble-burning, it is a brief ironic prefiguring of Alice’s end. For despite electric, passionate scenes where her husband tries to persuade her to take the sacrament, she will not do so, and finally in 1558 will stand alongside Alexander at the stake in 1558, her ears cut off and her living body burned for calling Queen Mary a “Jezebel! Papal whore!”.
The political is the personal. Ed’s cry to his friend Alexander is “leave us, with your liking of danger and darkness!” and to his wife “Alice, the fire will be hot and the terror great and the pain extreme. And life is sweet…”. She only says “We love God, that’s all..but do we love him enough?” . The heroism of it shakes you rigid: Alice Driver in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is recorded as saying of the chain holding her to the pyre “Here is a goodly neckerchief, blessed by God for it”. Della-Porta in her final prison scene makes that seem credible.
I think I will be haunted by this play. I was by Joanna Carrick’s last one, PROGRESS, and this is even better. That was about the aftermath for local people caught up in the intellectual thrill and dark savagery of the Reformation. – set in 1561, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ipswich and a fragile peace came to a nation so bitterly, dangerously divided that our current flouncing irritations over Brexit look like a nursery huff. What Carrick has done in both is tremendous: no Wolf-Hall aristocracies and political gaming, simply a sense of clear young voices speaking to us from a distant past, suffering and relishing seismic changes in the way a whole western world thought and believed. The ending has a quietly intense religious and personal force which leaves you silent.
Box office www.redrosechain.com to to 27 May