Photograph © Ralf & Birgit Brinkhoff
ARTICLES

Noël Coward's HOME CHAT at the Finborough


The Finborough theatre is located on the street of the same name, close to the Warwick Street entrance of Earl’s Court station. It has an outstanding reputation, especially for revivals of period plays and musicals. In Home Chat, it is staging a very rare production of Noël Coward’s 1927 comedy about a marital crisis caused brought on by a train crash.

Given trains entering tunnels were to be a staple of cinematic imagery representing the sexual act (along with foam-topped waves crashing against firm but yielding beaches), it seems highly appropriate for an event on a train to cause the sexual jealousy that leads to the breakdown of a marriage.

Three years before Home Chat, Coward produced his first major hit, The Vortex - a play with a highly-charged dramatic scene clearly inspired by that between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. If The Vortex owed a debt to Hamlet, then Home Chat could be said to owe one to Othello, though this being a 1920s comedy, the ending is one of happiness all round rather than a strangled wife. There are plenty of women happy to play the Iago role, however - immediately seeing the worse possible reasons for a man and a woman (Peter Chelsworth, played by Richard Dempsey, and Janet Ebony, played by Zoë Waites) sharing a sleeping compartment on the London train from Paris. Their mischief-making immediately leads novelist Paul Ebony (Tim Chipping) to join them in their outrage at this apparent flouting of middle-class morality.

That Paul is so quick to suspect Janet is partly down to their marriage being less than perfect. It is also a case of projection. Paul is being relentlessly courted by  Mavis Wittersham (Clare Lawrence Moody). When Janet storms out of the matrimonial home, furious at Paul’s wholly unjustified accusations, Mavis takes the chance she has longed for and pounces. The two swiftly become a couple.

The truth is the train was overcrowded and Janet happened to have a spare place in her sleeping compartment. Peter was a very old friend, for whom she had no sexual attraction at all. The crash that derailed the train was deeply distressing - Janet is furious that instead of receiving sympathy for having suffered a horrific accident, she is denounced as an adulteress.

Director by Martin Parr and with an atmospheric set (Rebecca Brower) and costumes (Charlotte Espiner), this is, like all Coward’s work, worth a visit, even though it’s far inferior to his 1930 classic about a warring couple, Private Lives. Though the principal roles are well-played, the real delight of the evening is the supporting parts. As two formidable old bats, Polly Adams (Mrs Ebony) and Joanna David (Mrs Chilham) steal the show, but Nelly Harker also shines as Peter Chelsworth’s distressed fiancee, Lavinia. Philip Correia plays a dashing military officer whose chance introduction to Janet leads to a new romantic entanglement. He brings an understated but compelling sexual presence to the production.

Coward is, these days, often criticised for his condescending portrayal of the working classes. Given the conventions and attitudes of his day this is a little unfair, but Martin Parr makes sure that the manservants in both the Ebony and Chelsworth households (both played by Robert Hazle) are rounded characters. Hazle has an excellent singing voice which is put to good use in a couple of Coward songs, renditions of which during scene changes add immeasurably to the period atmosphere. A brilliant composer and lyricist (and, indeed, poet) as well as an actor and playwright, it’s no wonder Coward’s nickname was ‘The Master’. That mastery wasn’t fully developed in Home Chat , but the play gives clear indications of the better things that were to come. This production’s run ended on 24 September but it’s to be hoped that more rarely-performed Coward plays will be given an airing before long.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell

SWEENEY TODD at the London Coliseum


English National Opera’s financial woes have been making the headlines this year. One of the ways the beleaguered (but much-loved) company has been trying to address the various problems it faces is by co-producing what it hopes will be sure-fire musical (ie West End show) hits, which it may then send out into the wider world.

The first such event is a short run of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Sweeney Todd. This is a musical (baed on Victorian stories and melodrama) about ‘the demon barber of Fleet Street’ - a wronged man who seeks revenge on the corrupt judge who, years before, raped his wife and falsely imprisoned him. Todd teams up with Mrs Lovett, renting rooms above her pie shop. Realising his murderous intent she suggests using his various victims as foodstuff. As a result her meat pies became the toast of the town!

Sweeney Todd is a very dark piece, featuring serial killing, sexual assault, madness and the continued damage that a miscarriage of justice can inflict, decades after it was first carried out.

This is a semi-staged version, directed by Lonny Price (with set design by James Noone and lighting design by Mark Henderson) but don’t let the apparent concert performance format deceive you. The orchestra are on stage (a strongly theatrical touch in itself, especially when the conductor is the charismatic David Charles Abell) and the staging itself is highly inventive, energetic and effective, with use being made not just of the stage but of boxes near it - along with occasional forays into the auditorium by members of the cast.

Although Sweeney Todd was seen in London relatively recently, in an award-winning production headed by Michael Ball and the incomparable Imelda Staunton, the Coliseum’s offering deserves to be seen. Bryn Terfel has the stage presence and powerful voice you would expect from one of the country’s most experienced opera singers, while Emma Thompson, as Mrs Lovett, manages to subsume her characteristic glow (which film stars like her used to have but which is all too rare these days) in a performance of cockney bravura that inevitably brings to mind Me and My Girl, the musical in which she made her name on the London stage some thirty years ago.

This isn’t a perfect production - both the leads were occasionally hard to understand, unlike Philip Quast’s clearly-enunciated (and commanding) performance as Judge Turpin. Not hearing the words when they are sung is a problem in any show but especially when the lyricist is as impressive and original as Sondheim.

However, this is a fabulously theatrical night out and if ENO can keep producing shows as impressive as Sweeney Todd then their musical theatre strategy may well pay off. Watch this space.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell

UNTOUCHABLE A New Ballet at Covent Garden


Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter makes a welcome appearance at the Royal Opera House in Untouchable, running in rep with Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth.

Balanchine was one of several geniuses to have been given a start in their creative life by Diaghilev back in the 1920s, and The Four Temperaments, which begins the evening, is a worthwhile and strikingly modern piece by one of the 20th century’s best-known choreographers. The final part of the programme, is Macmillan’s ballet, giving visual form to Gustav Mahler’s music - and on-stage singing as well as the orchestra in the pit. The three central roles in Song of the Earth were danced by Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares and Carlos Acosta, the latter playing the Messenger of Death. A thought-provoking meditation on life and death.

Fittingly, the central work - Untouchable - is the newest of the three ballets that make up the evening. That it is also the most memorable is partly down to the work’s inherent appeal but also because it has a warmth and energy that make a striking contrast with the more cerebral pieces that precede and follow it. Yes, it may not have the longevity of the other two in years to come, but on the night itself it had the most impact.

In his first work for the Royal Ballet (in London his choreography tends to be seen at Sadler’s Wells) Shechter's cast are dressed by Holly Waddington in what look like Middle Eastern army fatigues, giving the work a contemporary feel, though the flowing, whirling movements suggest something tribal and timeless.

An ensemble piece, it has the benefits and drawbacks of repetition, but overall it is a success: a hypnotic half an hour that transports you from the red plush of the Royal Opera House to the deserts from where the three major religions of the Middle East emerged. Some critics have suggested this wasn’t Shechter at his most impressive. Maybe not, but it demonstrates dance’s ancient roots and continued emotional power. Let’s hope the Royal Ballet welcome him back with another new work soon.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell

PRINCESS IDA Finborough Theatre


The Finborough, ten minutes’ walk from Earl’s Court tube, is a little jewel of a theatre that consistently punches above its weight.

Its current show is a re-imagination of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida by Phil Willmott, who also directs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas reflected the Victorian society in which they were created, however fanciful or exotic their supposed setting. The Mikado, for example, though ostensibly centred on the Japanese court, was a very English satire, as was brilliantly recognised in Jonathan Miller’s outstanding (and deservedly long-lived) production for English National Opera at the London Coliseum.

One of ENO’s regular stars (who stole the show in Miller’s Coliseum production of La Bohème a couple of years ago) is Simon Butteriss. An accomplished writer, translator and director as well as a singer, Butteriss heads the cast of Princess Ida at the Finborough, playing the role of Lord Gama, Ida’s guardian and Lord Protector of the kingdom.

Bridget Costello plays Ida, hidden away in a women-only university, while Zac Wancke plays Prince Hilarion, to whom she was married twenty years earlier when they were both babies, and who has now come in search of her.

This production may not please all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fans - especially the purists - and the duo’s jokey attitude to women’s education might not be to every modern taste but this is a comic Victorian musical not a modern political tract, after all, and it fits neatly into the Finborough’s Celebrating British Music Theatre programme of reviving rarely performed examples of the genre. As such, Princess Ida is well worth a trip to West London for two hours or so of lively entertainment - and escape from the general election campaign.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell

LA TRAVIATA London Coliseum


Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata is currently in rep at the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera. The company has been in the news recently over political infighting, but attention at the first night on Monday 9th February was where it should be - on stage.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’s play La Dame aux Camelias, Verdi’s opera tells of the doomed love between a courtesan (ie a high-class prostitute), Violetta, and an idealistic young man, Alfredo Germont. We know the evening is bound to end in tragedy as Violetta begins the opera dangerously ill with tuberculosis - which in many ways was the 19th century equivalent of AIDS, cutting a swathe through the young and beautiful.

Violetta leaves the backstabbing and conspicuous consumption (no pun intended) of Paris to live in a country house with Alfredo, only to have their rural idyll shattered when his father appears, demanding she leave his son for the sake of the boy’s long-term future and the reputation of the rest of the family.

She does so, pretending to desert Alfredo, the intensity of whose bitter reaction has more than a little touch of Othello about it - only he trashes her character in front of her ‘friends’, rather than strangling her at home.

Finally, in Act 3, he learns the truth of her loving self-sacrifice and returns to Paris to reconcile himself with her, only for her to die in his arms - with not a dry eye in the house.

This production is very pared-back - almost the only set is a series of simple curtains and the occasional chair. As a result, it looks like the sort of show one might see on the fringe. Given that we are, instead, in a world-class opera house, the production’s bareness proves, ironically, very distracting. Far from the absence of set emphasising the action, it diminishes it. When, in a traditional version, you can see the Paris apartment or the charming country house, you have a context for the action and can focus on the performers. Here, you wonder what more they expect to get away with, using just more curtains.

Having said that, the very end of the opera, when Violetta’s death is symbolised by her walking off the bare stage into the dark, is very effective and Elizabeth Zharoff gives a superb performance as Violetta. In the course of the evening she changes not just costume but wig (one per act and each a different colour) finally discarding the last to reveal a cascade of her own hair. This is very impressive - her hairdresser should get a credit!

Ben Johnson plays a bookworm Alfredo rather than the dashing young man about town the role is usually imagined as, but the concept works well once you get over the initial surprise. Similarly, having Violetta’s doctor (Martin Lamb) played as a destructive Dr Feelgood type, always willing to give his client another cocktail of drugs for a quick high, is an interesting concept as well as having contemporary resonances.

Anthony Michaels-Moore gives a very strong performance as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio. His voice is rich and clear and his diction is perfect: no need for the electronic subtitles above the proscenium arch while he is singing.

The evening belongs, though, as it should, to Violetta. Elizabeth Zharoff grows in power throughout the evening, as does her acting. When she first appears, looking like silent movie star Louise Brooks, she doesn’t entirely convince - the production is too concerned with making its point and having her convey it, rather than getting on with the show. However, in Act 2 she comes alive, giving a very moving interpretation of the role, especially in the spine-tingling few seconds of ‘Love Me, Alfredo’. As the music swells, the drums send a vibration through the entire auditorium and she becomes the incarnation of a doomed older lover facing the end of all she had dreamed of. This is one of the most engaging musical theatre performances currently in the West End, so if you’ve done the round of the usual American musicals then go to see La Traviata.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell


For more details about La Traviata click here

TAKEN AT MIDNIGHT Theatre Royal, Haymarket


Mark Hayhurst’s Taken At Midnight has transferred from Chichester to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket - one of London’s most beautiful theatres. It tells the story of Hans Litten, a left-wing lawyer who in 1931 had the audacity to call Hitler as a witness to a trial of some of his Stormtroopers. In the dock the Nazi leader, trying to make himself palatable to middle class voters, given the tempting prospect of power through the ballot box, was exposed as the dangerous leader of a quasi-military party - a man happy to use violence to get his way.

Despite this, the voters swept Hitler to power in January 1933 and soon after Litten was arrested. He then spent the next 5 years - until his suicide in Dachau - in a series of concentration camps, where he was relentlessly tortured.

The story was made into a TV film and a documentary by the same writer, who has now produced a stage play. The difference is that the focus of the play is on Litten’s mother, Irmgard, and her extraordinarily dogged and brave attempt to get her imprisoned son released, and in doing so to alert the wider world to his plight. The set is divided into two sections - the bare and very frightening upstage space representing the various places in which Hans was kept prisoner, and the foreground, which serves as everywhere else - from Irmgard Litten’s flat to Gestapo headquarters.

Martin Hutson is excellent as Hans Litten, twisting his body as the play moves forward, to represent the appalling damage the lawyer’s body suffered in the course of years of savage beatings. Another very strong performance comes from the ever-reliable David Yelland as an English aristocrat who takes an interest in Litten’s case but doesn’t want to rock the boat too much, given England is busy appeasing Hitler in the attempt to avoid the horrors of another world war.

Good though both these actors (and indeed all the cast) are, the evening belongs to Penelope Wilton, whose latest stage performance, as Irmgard Litten, points up how absurd it is that she hasn’t been yet been made a Dame. She commands the stage whenever she is on it, without ever descending into histrionics. She conveys Irmgard’s decency and determination, while Hayhurst gives her a deeply moving speech about women’s strength and the power of maternal love.

This speech is directed at the Gestapo officer she regularly deals with as she fights to free her son. The officer, Dr Conrad, is played with sinister charm by John Light, who gives a remarkable performance in a role that author and director (Jonathan Church) never let descend into caricature. Indeed it is the flashes of humanity that Conrad seems to offer that make his eventual rant about how much he hates Hans Litten all the more devastating.

Taken at Midnight is an important reminder that, for all the dark glamour of Nazi Germany’s torchlit parades, marching songs and well-choreographed Olympic Games, its defining feature was the appalling violence it unleashed against anyone who disagreed with it, or who was considered an enemy of the State simply on the grounds of race. There is nothing glamorous about having your teeth smashed, legs and hip broken, cheekbone fractured and eye permanently damaged, as Litten did, while being kicked senseless on the concrete floor of a barracks.

If this sounds deeply unpleasant that’s because it was. Taken at Midnight conveys the horror of Litten’s fate very effectively without the graphic detail of a movie but, because the audience is sharing a space with the actors, what we do see and in effect share with the characters they portray is all the more shocking. That many of the audience, on the 10th February at least, were Jewish, added to the palpable tension in the theatre.

It is a tribute to the writing and the performances that the language of the security state, the justification of totalitarianism, is in its way as loaded with the promise of violence as any stylised acting-out of a beating. The Gestapo officer’s insistence, near the start of the play, that Hans hasn’t been arrested, just taken into ‘protective custody’, is a chilling foretaste of what is to come.

So, this is not an easy play, but it is an important one. And though we know what happens in the end - that Hans Litten finally couldn’t take any more and hanged himself - the fact that the regime that persecuted him also perished, violently, and that Hitler, too, died in a cellar, by his own hand, does give the play if not a happy ending then a morally satisfying one. And like the best stage tragedies, it pays tribute to the enduring power of the human spirit and the courage born of unconditional love. 


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



ONEGIN at the Royal Ballet



©ROH / Bill Cooper, 2013
January and February see, in rep with other work, a revival of the Royal Ballet’s superb production of Onegin. This is a ballet, created in 1965 by the choreographer John Cranko, based on the classic Russian poem Eugene Onegin.

The poet who wrote Eugene Onegin, one of the great pieces of Romantic 19th century verse, was Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), a gifted writer whose most famous poem was also turned into an opera by Tchaikovsky. The score to Cranko’s ballet, too, is by Tchaikovsky but Kurt-Heinz Stolze, who arranged the music, took it from other works by the composer.

The ballet tells a powerfully dramatic story in three acts. In the first, a teenager, Tatiana, falls in love with a Byronically handsome, wealthy but world-weary aristocrat, Eugene Onegin.

Tatiana dreams (literally) of romance with him and sends an impassioned letter declaring her love. He, amused rather than touched, tells her to forget any such ambitions as he has no sexual feelings for her. She’s too young and inexperienced to interest him - she should find someone else.

Later, at a dance, Onegin, bored, decides to flirt with the fiancee of his friend, Lensky, a young poet. Lensky, infuriated by this, challenges him to a duel. This is almost suicidal as Onegin is as good a shot as he is at everything else. Though he tries to make amends, when the poet insists on his challenge, Onegin’s sense of honour means he has to go through with the duel - and win. Lensky is killed.

Full of remorse for this unnecessary death, Onegin spends several years travelling the world. Eventually he returns to St Petersburg, where he goes to a ball at the palace of a cousin of his - a nobleman and soldier. To his astonishment, among the dancers he sees Tatiana, whose charm and goodness he has never forgotten. His treatment of her has preyed on his mind almost as much as the way he goaded his friend to his death. Onegin is horrified to learn that Tatiana is married - to his cousin.

In the final scene, which is one of the most powerful (partly thanks to Tchaikovsky’s score) in the whole of the ballet repertoire, Onegin manages to see Tatiana on her own, having sent her a note (the mirror image of the one she sent him, five years earlier) declaring his love and asking her to leave her husband for him. Though she still loves him, and in a far more sexually-charged way than the relatively mild, dutiful - but genuine - feelings she has for her husband, Tatiana tears up Onegin’s letter and sends him away for ever: but only after the most extraordinary pas de deux, ending with an equally dramatic drum roll that hammers home the agony of the choice that Tatiana is forced to make.

There was a terrible irony associated with the poem in real life: Pushkin, who married a society beauty, rashly challenged a Guards officer who he suspected of flirting with his wife, to a duel - in which he was killed. The choreographer of this ballet version, South African-born John Cranko, also died prematurely, in his early 40s. A highly-respected Director of the Stuttgart Ballet, he left several works as his legacy, of which Onegin, a great favourite with audiences at Covent Garden, is the most exciting.

Casts this season include Russian star Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding - a Royal Ballet principal whose facial resemblance to Brad Pitt hasn’t hindered an impressive career. Theirs is probably the highest-profile pairing but, based on previous performances at the Royal Opera House, Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares bring something special to their roles. Their evident skill as dancers is the prime attraction, but they invest the torrid love scenes with an emotional depth that can’t be entirely unrelated to the fact that, in real life, they are husband and wife. They, and the ballet, are highly recommended.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



THREE WINTERS National Theatre


Three Winters, Tena Stivicic’s family drama set in Croatia, is currently playing at the Lyttelton, the National Theatre’s proscenium arch stage. Opening to mainly good reviews from a variety of newspapers, it tells the story of several generations of one family who all live in a beautiful Victorian house in Zagreb.

The house stands as a symbol of Croatia and the play is divided into three periods of that country’s history - 1945, 1990 and 2011. Three Winters isn’t linear - the playwright takes us back and forth in time from the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Seeking shelter in a Communist-run city ruined by several years of conflict, Rose, a young woman with a new-born child and a husband who had been conscripted into fascist militia, finds a refuge in the house. As we soon learn, she has chosen it for personal as well as practical reasons - her mother, Monika, who is her third dependant, used to be a maid there before the war.

Hovering in the background is an intense portrait of the aristocratic young Karolina, whose wealthy father built and owned the house. She grew up in privilege, destined for a good marriage in monarchist circles (Croatia being then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). At first a ghostly presence on the wall of the mansion that has now been divided into flats by the new communist regime, Karolina turns out to be present in a much more earthly way, in a scene that is one of the most dramatic in the two and a half hours that the play lasts.

The other most involving moment is when two sisters, in 2011 - Rose’s grand-daughters - fight over the morality of buying up the rest of the house from the people who live there. Especially as there are suggestions of strong-arm tactics alongside the cash offer. The purchase will mean that, for the first time since the War, the house once again belongs to just one family.

As it is being played, this seems to be the natural emotional and dramatic end to the play, but Stivicic still has a final twist to deliver in a quiet but powerful scene between the young Karolina and Monika.

The most memorable performance of the evening comes from Jodie McNee, as the politically-motivated Alisa, appalled at the idea of evicting their neighbours on the eve of her sister Lucia’s wedding. She has many of the best lines of the night, though Sophie Rundle, as the enthusiastically capitalist bride-to-be, also gives as good as she gets in their increasingly intense verbal duel.

Much as the National should be applauded for staging modern plays from Eastern Europe along with the usual Russian classics, one can’t help comparing them, given that the director of Three Winters is Howard Davies. One of the National’s most distinguished artists and a past director of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, he won an Evening Standard Award and the 2011 Olivier Award as Best Director for his superb revival of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1920s play, The White Guard. A play that showed that, for normal middle class people, the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy was something to be regretted, given the horrors of what came after.

That sentiment would have few takers from left-of-centre audiences today, which makes it all the more extraordinary that Bulgakov’s play was protected from the Soviet authorities at the time by none other than Joseph Stalin. Stalin enjoyed the play because he was attracted to the characters portrayed in it, despite their being ‘class enemies’ .

The White Guard worked precisely because the people shown in it were so well-drawn and sympathetic. Like Three Winters, it, too, was a family drama, set in a troubled East European country whose population were never sure where their (public) allegiance should lie in a period of bewilderingly frequent regime change. Ironically, though it is some 90 years older than Stivicic’s play, and despite all the political changes it addressed, The White Guard was clearer, more powerful, more personally involving and, given the fact that it was set in the Ukraine, a more relevant play to today’s Europe than Three Winters. It is good that London audiences have had a chance to see Stivicic’s take on a part of Europe whose troubles appalled the world in the late 20th century - but if the National really wants to draw our attention to the traumas of modern European conflict, it should bring back Bulgakov’s The White Guard.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS Savoy Theatre


Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbeck’s stage version of the very popular 1980s film comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an engaging and entertaining musical that offers a taste of old-style theatrical song-and dance charm in the person of Robert Lindsay as a middle-aged con man, Lawrence Jameson, who schmoozes the widowed and the lonely on the French Riviera every season, working in tandem with a corrupt police chief (John Marquez, who many people will remember as the dozy police constable in Doc Martin).

Marquez makes the most of his role, creating the most engagingly corrupt French police chief since Claude Rains in Casablanca.

Their cosy criminal double act is threatened by the arrival of a penniless American, Freddy Benson, (Rufus Hound) with similar ideas about fleecing wealthy women. The two men agree to an informal challenge, with a pretty, leggy American heiress (they assume), played by Katherine Kingsley, who has come to the Cote d’Azur for some sophisticated fun. The contest is, in effect, between their two completely contrasting styles – Lindsay’s sophisticated charm vs Hound’s exuberant boisterousness.



Playing another of Lindsay’s victims is Samantha Bond who, just when she seems to be speaking her songs, rather like Rex Harrison used to do, proves she can in fact sing rather well. We knew she could act, but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels gives her a licence to amuse – and sing – and dance, all of which she does with aplomb.

Jerry Mitchell directs, while the suitably glitzy-looking sets are by Peter McKintosh.

This has been described as a throw-back to old-time musical theatre comedy and the audience reaction suggest this is a genre that, though it may have almost died out, would be readily welcomed back to life by London theatregoers. Staging such a show is expensive and needs big names. Lindsay fits the bill. He was at the Savoy some years ago as Richard III, playing in effect a medieval con man who, like his character here, has a way with women – even if he has recently murdered their much-loved husband.

In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels one is reminded of his star role in a play with a more obvious link to musical theatre than a Shakespearean drama – John Osborne’s The Entertainer. The character he played there, Archie Rice, (created by Laurence Olivier on stage and then film) was a failing music hall artist, a man with a superficial smile yet dead behind the eyes. In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels however, he plays a man half in love with his own charm, a song-and-dance man of the old school who may make a living by swindling rich women of a certain age but who has – as he is surprised to find – a heart.

Lindsay brings the character to life with a self-mocking humour, inter-acting with the orchestra’s conductor and with the audience, who clearly loved him. If the show had some stronger numbers than the jolly but forgettable ones it has, then this would be a must-see night out in the West End rather than just a recommended one.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



RELATIVE VALUES Harold Pinter Theatre


Relative Values is a play by Noël Coward, premiered in 1951, when the post-war Labour government was to be replaced by the Conservatives under Winston Churchill.

Coward and others of his very conservative social attitude hoped that this might mean the clock  - not to mention the socialist direction of the country – would be turned back. He was to be disappointed, though class divisions carried on until the radical changes of the 1960s.  Relative Values was a comedy that was also a political piece: the laughter masked the real dismay that Coward had felt at the post-war changes. He chose to express this, typically, not through a diatribe but through comedy. Though identified with the upper classes, to whom he had been a sort of court jester in the 1920s before he joined (in the public imagination, at least) their ranks, here his take on the issue of class is represented by that of the butler, Crestwell, played by Rory Bremner. Crestwell’s adoration of the aristocracy – and his hope, expressed at the end of the play, that the lower classes would once more keep to their place – would seem jarring if not actually bizarre today were we not aware of such below-stairs views thanks to the huge popularity of Downton Abbey, whose butler, Carson, would no doubt agree with Crestwell’s every belief. Thanks to Carson, people have become accustomed to the pre-war view of how the social strata should work, even if those views are now nearly a century out of date.

As the stage butler, Rory Bremner gives a slightly mannered performance but one which wins over the audience. His physical comedy is understated but effective and he is clearly a favourite with theatregoers.

The plot involves the young Earl of Marshwood (Sam Hoare) getting engaged to a Hollywood actress (Leigh Zimmerman). As if that were not bad enough for his mother, the Dowager Countess (Patricia Hodge), it turns out that the actress was born in England and is the estranged and long-lost sister of the Countess’s working-class maid – played by Caroline Quentin.

All three women give strong performances with Quentin particularly funny when she is ‘promoted’ to her employer’s Secretary so she isn’t shown up too much when her actress sister comes to stay.

The evening, however, belongs to Patricia Hodge, who gives a wonderfully confident comic performance.

Coward, in reaction to the kitchen sink drama that arrived five years after this play and promptly sank it and most of those like it, insisted that ‘Duchesses have feelings too!’ In Relative Values his sympathies are entirely with the wily Dowager Countess. Miss Hodge’s perfectly chiselled features have led to her playing many upper-class roles over the years, including one of the Mitford sisters in a 1980s musical, The Mitford Girls. She is ideal casting here.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set is appropriately old-fashioned and elegant while Trevor Nunn’s direction has many nice touches, including the use of contemporary newsreel between scene changes. This is a very effective reminder of the main events of 1951 (like the Festival of Britain) and social attitudes of the day. There is something poignant in the view it affords us of the young Princess Margaret, on her 21st birthday, looking stunning. The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, looks very attractive, in a less sultry way than her sister, but on the night I was there the audience gave an involuntary laugh at her  extraordinarily (to 21st century ears) clipped, high-pitch accent as she gave an official speech.

Relative Values got rather a relatively poor review in the Guardian, thanks partly to Coward’s reactionary political message and it is highly unlikely to appeal to that paper’s readers, but for the general theatre-going public, as an evening of light entertainment (which is its purpose, after all), it is a good night out with plenty of laughs. The programme notes are also well worth reading – they are as informative as those more often found in subsidised theatres – perhaps a legacy of the days Sir Trevor ran the National Theatre.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



BLITHE SPIRIT Gielgud Theatre



Blithe Spirit, Sir Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy about a séance that goes wrong, is playing at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The play is directed by Michael Blakemore, whose production was first seen on Broadway in 2009, where it starred Dame Angela Lansbury, who reprises her role as the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, here in London.

Lansbury is an old-fashioned star, in the best sense of the word, with a stage and screen career that goes back over seventy years. How many other actresses in the West End have received an Oscar nomination for a role in a black and white movie (Gaslight) – made during the Second World War? She receives an equally old-fashioned (and delightful) round of applause on her first entrance on stage and gets a well-deserved standing ovation at the curtain call.

In between, Dame Angela gives a convincing and energetic though never over-the-top performance as the medium hired by worldly author Charles Condomine (an elegant and convincing Charles Edwards) to give a séance, so he can get material for a book he is writing. Charles and his second wife, Ruth (Janie Dee) are wholly sceptical and Ruth remains so, but Charles, to his horror, finds the séance conjures up the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Jemima Rooper) who returns to his country house from the afterworld.

The play has many one-liners, as you would expect from vintage Coward, though they tend to be funny in context and on stage rather than on the page. You have to be there…

Simon Higlett’s set is just right for the period, as are the performances, though Jemima Rooper’s Elvira seems less in period than the others. Given, however, she is playing a ghost who now belongs to no time at all, this doesn’t matter. Of the two roles, that of Elvira is the showiest but Janie Dee’s effortless glamour raises the role of Ruth from potential also-ran to joint lead with Charles Edward’s debonair author.

Edwards played George VI in the stage version of The King’s Speech, where his character was supported by his wife. Here his character has two wives and is driven to distraction (and, almost literally, to his death) by them. He proves himself as good at comedy as playing noble dignity, and is clearly born to play Coward roles.

In the rather thankless supporting parts of Dr and Mrs Bradman, Simon Jones and Serena Evans give confident performances, with Miss Evans in particularly good – though understated - comic form. In her West End debut Patsy Ferran is very funny as the maid, Edith, who has a propensity to stand too close to her employers – and turns out to have unexpected psychic powers.

The posters for the show and most of the publicity have been focused on Dame Angela, which is understandable. She fully justifies this, giving an astonishing performance for an 88 year-old – fortified, perhaps, by a ghostly presence of her own: her mother gave her professional debut in this same theatre, back in 1918. It is a tribute to Coward’s writing, Blakemore’s direction and the talent of her co-performers, that though there’s nothing like a Dame, the rest of the cast also shine in an ensemble piece that reminds us how richly Sir Noël deserved his nickname of ‘Master’.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell


For more information on Blithe Spirit click here

I FOUND MY HORN Trafalgar Studios 2


Jonathan Guy Lewis stars in a one-man show about a middle-aged man who tries to recapture, if not his lost youth then at least some of the youthful energy and enthusiasm he once had as a French horn player.

The play is co-written by Jonathan Guy Lewis and Jasper Rees, based on a book by Rees.

The actor brings a slightly battered but noticeable sex appeal to the part. Allied to an easy-going demeanour that occasionally collapses into brief moments of (his character’s) disbelieving panic, his performance – which includes a spirited playing of the French Horn – draws the audience willingly into the process through which he transforms himself from a genial no-hoper who has lost a marriage and seems at risk of losing a son, into a sort of Everyman whose personal pilgrimage ends in a feel-good flurry of notes and a public redemption.

Some people have little time for one-man shows. This only takes 85 minutes out of your day and readily repays the time with a cheering, jolly story, well-performed, that suggests it is never too late or too embarrassing to reconnect with your younger self and the hopes you once had. This is, in a sense, the optimists’ version of Les Miserables’ ‘I Dreamed A Dream’. If you need cheering up, this is the perfect play for you.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell


For more information click here

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch


The Malachites theatre company’s The Merchant of Venice is a stylish, modern-dress production of one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays.

A largely youthful cast does full justice to the drama in the striking St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch – the East End church which is used as the setting for the BBC TV series Rev, starring Tom Hollander.

The production’s sound design, by Claire-Monique Martin, who also plays Shylock’s daughter Jessica, takes full advantage of the church setting and atmosphere. If it sounds like faint praise to start by mentioning sound design then it isn’t meant to be – it’s just that her design was very successful!

The set was simple but ingenious – conjuring up Italian urban backstreets by stringing laundry across the nave (where the performance took place), from the balconies on either side.

In an ensemble piece it may seem unfair to single out performances, but Charlie Woollhead as Bassanio combined youthful energy with a surprising authority. Lucy Kilpatrick was a confident and attractive Portia and her handling of the trial scene – where Shakespeare indulged his favourite and occasionally tiresome habit of having his characters cross-dress, was particularly assured.

Gabriel Constantin brought a sunny charm to the role of Salarino and in his second part of Duke of Venice brought a stately good nature to the role, making it more three dimensional than is often the case.

Any production of The Merchant of Venice stands or falls with the performance of the title role and in Stephen Connery-Brown the company has an utterly compelling actor. Clearly Jewish but never a caricature, his Shylock was a man in his prime rather than the aged figure we sometimes see on stage and this reading of the part makes his anger at his treatment by Antonio and other anti-semitic Venetians all the more believable. Connery-Brown’s Shylock is a man who might, given his wealth and vitality, expect respect rather than the spittle and insults he receives.

He also brings a certain humour to the role – not in the sense of making it comic, but in showing the underlying intelligence and sense of irony of a successful wheeler-dealer who is well aware of his own worth. Even in the scene where he insists on his bond – his pound of flesh – he doesn’t become a hateful figure: he is briskly business-like rather than gloatingly cruel. His fall is all the more poignant as a result.

The production is on until Saturday 19 April, Wednesday to Saturdays, but with some variations on performance days, so check with the box office on 0871 220 0260 for details.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



ANOTHER COUNTRY Trafalgar Studios



©Johan Persson
Julian Mitchell’s early 1980s play, Another Country, was inspired by the exposure of art historian and establishment figure Sir Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy. Mitchell’s thesis was that to understand Blunt and his contemporaries and fellow spies one needed to go back to their schooldays.

The central character in Another Country is Guy Bennett, modelled on Guy Burgess, the gentlemanly, louche and promiscuously gay Old Etonian who devoted his life to spying for the Communist system that loathed the very class he came from. A class that couldn’t quite believe that an Etonian could be a traitor.

Mitchell homes in on class – or rather classroom, in the repressive, hierarchical and hypocritical world of the traditional public school in 1930s Britain, when the country still ruled a vast empire that these boys were destined to run. What, asks Mitchell, could turn someone born into this world turn into a traitor – while still operating at the heart of, and thoroughly enjoying the trappings of, the society he is determined to betray?

In Another Country the answer is sex. Guy is openly, indeed outrageously gay and this in the end destroys his school career, leading to his decision to spend the rest of his life avenging himself on the type of people who thwarted him. While Mitchell makes Guy an attractive character whose sense of unjust persecution is both real and moving, he also shows that it is not just for his sexuality that Guy is penalised, but for his arrogance, his exhibitionism and his refusal to fit in.

As Guy, Rob Callender dominates the stage, his tall yet fey good looks complemented by a knowingly flirtatious manner that never tips over into irritating queenliness. As his foil, the communist schoolboy Judd, Will Attenborough started a little stiffly but got into his stride as the play went on. Both men were up against the ghosts of Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh, who first played the roles in the West End, but forced them back into the wings of Peter McKintosh’s atmospheric set.

Bill Milner looked too old for the part of Wharton, who is meant to be a thirteen-year old, against the seventeen and eighteen year-old senior boys, but his acting overcame this obstacle and he gave a convincing performance of a highly nervous ‘fag’ (ie junior boy who has to run errands, cook and clean for senior boys). A specially good touch in Mitchell’s script was when even Wharton, taunted about a potential future career, displays an automatic pride in his family’s history and, by implication, wealth and place in society.

One of the most rewarding performances of the evening was from Julian Wadham, who plays Vaughan Cunningham, a liberal intellectual who visits the school to give a lecture and is hit on by Guy, who sees him as someone who is living the urbane life Guy himself wants – and who can help him get on in society. Wadham is one of London’s best stage actors, was in the original cast of Another Country, and returns to the play, over thirty years later, as the only adult character.

A modern classic, on a very English theme. Highly recommended.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell


For more information click here

KINGS OF THE DANCE London Coliseum, March 19-22, 2014


Earlier this year Ivan Putrov brought his Men in Motion to the London Coliseum and now, a couple of months later, Sergei Danilian presents Kings of the Dance.

This show, which, like Men in Motion, has a gala performance format, stars some of the biggest (male) names in  ballet. Though Roberto Bolle is given pride of place in the final curtain call (after KO’d, an ensemble piece choreographed by one of the evening’s other dancers, Marcelo Gomes),
the real King of the Dance here is Ivan Vasiliev.

Vasiliev has a raw, masculine energy and a short, stocky physique that is less classically elegant than Bolle’s but which seems packed with testosterone and made him the audience’s clear favourite when I saw the performance on 20 March.



That evening Bolle danced the lead role in Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et La Mort. Premiered in 1946 this is a shockingly modern piece, graphically sexy and – with the newspapers still full of the tragic recent suicide of L’Wren Scott – given an disturbing contemporary resonance when its protagonist hangs himself in his Parisian garret.

During the run at the Coliseum, Bolle alternates the role with Vasiliev. The latter is some ways better suited to the part, given his youth and fiery energy – well demonstrated later in the evening  during his performance of Patrick de Bana’s Labyrinth of Solitude – but Bolle’s own age and physicality provides a fascinating take on the part. In his late 30s, tall and still strikingly handsome, his Jeune Homme is an older presence than we often see on stage, but this gives it a striking twist, suggesting a man whose youth might be on the way out and for whom sex represents a slightly desperate hanging on to (hence all that kicking over of chairs and hurling himself onto tables), rather than an expression of it. His suicide has something of the despair of a man for whom sex was the mainstream of a life he sees slipping away from him, rather than the overblown self-destructive romanticism of youth.

The figure of girlfriend/temptress/death is danced by Svetlana Lunkina. The character Petit created is slinky, harsh, aggressive – a dominatrix in a black wig and yellow dress who proves that the female of the species is definitely deadlier than the male.

Lunkina is the only female on stage during the evening, the other dancers being Leonid Sarafanov, Denis Matvienko and Marcelo Gomes (all three together in Nacho Duato’s Remanso). Matvienko and Gomes are paired in another Roland Petit excerpt, Morel et Saint Loup from Ballet Proust.

Bolle dances with himself (or, rather, images of himself on film) in Massimiliano Volpini’s high-tech piece Prototype. Film on stage can be distracting and gimmicky but in this case it worked superbly, combing touches of humour with an almost hypnotic power as Bolle and his computer-recorded images mirror and move together.

The least interesting  part of the evening was Leonid Sarafanov in Leonid Jacobson’s Vestris. This was danced, in an earlier Men in Motion at Sadler’s Wells, a couple of years ago, by Ivan Putov. Both men are slim, elegant and eminently watchable, with Sarafanov being the most charismatic of the three dancers in Remanso, but in both Men in Motion and Kings of the Dance, the Vestris piece, included as a humorous light relief to break up the drama and angst of the other pieces, failed to engage the audience. The result was polite applause rather than the rapturous cheers that greeted the other performances. Interesting though the piece is as a part of dance history, there must be a less dated, livelier solo number that could be used in gala shows like this?

Overall, though, this was a very rewarding evening. The central theme, of the power and appeal of male ballet dancers, and how they have moved on from merely supporter ballerinas, is nothing new. In fact, it hasn’t been since Nijinsky’s first performances with the Ballets Russes in 1909. But, as  an excuse to show talents like these five men, it’s entirely valid and very welcome
                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



ANOTHER COUNTRY: THE SPY IN THE OLD ETONIAN TIE


Julian Mitchell’s 1981 play, Another Country, set in an English public school in the 1930s, comes to the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall on 26 March, for a three-month run. The drama that launched the careers of Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Daniel Day Lewis and Kenneth Branagh, it examines the reasons why the Old Etonian man about town, Guy Burgess (lightly disguised as a character called Guy Bennett), with all the privileges of his class, would, as an adult, become a spy for the Communists - fleeing to Moscow in 1951 to avoid arrest for treason.

Rather than a desire to fight Fascism, Mitchell places the reasons behind Bennett’s treachery far closer to home: in the intense passions and politics of life at Eton. His thesis would have found favour with the author and critic Cyril Connolly – himself an Old Etonian – who argued that for a number of men of his background nothing in life ever matched the adolescent intensity of their schooldays. For Mitchell’s schoolboy, it was the Establishment’s distaste for his rebelliousness and overt homosexuality that led him to spend his adult life seeking revenge for his teenage years.



©Johan Persson

The real-life Burgess chose to enjoy all the social benefits of belonging to his class while indulging in his taste for the bottle and for young men, in an age when homosexuality was not only career death, but a criminal offence. That he got away with his spying for so long, despite his sex life and his drinking, was largely thanks to personal charm and what, to paraphrase the Macpherson Report, might be called institutional deference.

For Burgess’s career is a perfect example of two theories expounded by the High Priest of the English class system, Evelyn Waugh. In his satirical first novel, Decline and Fall, Waugh (who went to Lancing and had his first wife stolen from him by an Old Etonian) created a thoroughly reprehensible character, Captain Grimes, who patiently explains to the novel’s put-upon hero, Paul Pennyfeather, that he (Grimes) will be excused any crime because he went to public school.

In his later novel, Brideshead Revisited, the middle-class narrator, Charles Ryder, is warned by cosmopolitan Anthony Blanche of the fatal danger of charm. This very English attribute is personified by Lord Sebastian Flyte who, like Blanche, is of course an Old Etonian.

That Burgess was protected during his career by these twin shields of personal charm and public-school background is undeniable. Even in exile and disgrace these qualities worked their magic. Playing Gertrude in an international tour of Hamlet, Coral Browne met Burgess backstage in Moscow and – despite coming across him vomiting into a sink in a dressing room – fell under his spell.

The result was brilliantly recreated by Alan Bennett in a 1983 BBC television drama (later staged at the National Theatre) in which Burgess was played by Alan Bates, while Miss Browne played herself. The reality of Soviet Russia – not least its tailoring ­– had not been to Burgess’ taste so he persuaded Browne, on her return to England, to visit Savile Row and St James’s to replenish his wardrobe. He may have been a Soviet spy but, with his records of Gilbert and Sullivan, he was, as the title of the play asserted, very much An Englishman Abroad.

In a sense he was like another exile who had claimed to be a rebel: the Duke of Windsor. When Prince of Wales and latterly King, as Edward VIII, he had claimed to loathe the stuffiness of Court life and to be in favour of all things modern. After his abdication and based in Paris, Edward insisted on his indoor servants wearing royal livery, had his Garter banner displayed in the hall and was a stickler for protocol. Edward had gone to naval colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth rather than Eton, but the parallels are clear. Burgess, like Edward, betrayed his class - but wore his old school tie with pride.

That his rebellion, as Mitchell argued in Another Country, was more to do with school than socialism, meant his exile-as-punishment was as well-suited to his crime as his clothes were to his figure. His private life in Russia depressed him, for though the Soviets gave him a state-sanctioned lover, he was no longer able to enjoy the louche nocturnal expeditions that had been a feature of Cambridge and London. He came to loathe the drabness of Soviet life and, away from his natural habitat of Pall Mall clubs and Foreign Office receptions, he was lost. The result was an aching nostalgia for England and the sort of Englishness that the very words ‘Old Etonian’ conjure up.

Nostalgia accounted for the huge success of the early 1980s television adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the wave of period productions that it launched, right up to today’s  Downton Abbey. Despite the many social changes over the last 30 years, we now have an Old Etonian Prime Minister, Archbishop of Canterbury, Mayor of London and next-but-one heir to the throne, along with the Music Director of English National Opera and several of our leading young actors, including Eddie Redmayne and Harry Lloyd.

This gives a topicality as well historical interest to Julian Mitchell’s Another Country. Half a century after his death, Guy Burgess would be amused to see the preponderance of Old Etonians in English public and cultural life, but not surprised. Not only his life in exile, but his death, too, showed the power of the old school tie. For despite everything he did to his countrymen, and against all the odds, his body was allowed to be brought back to England after his death and rests now, exactly as he wanted, in a quintessentially English village in Hampshire. Proof, as if it were needed, of the continuing truth of Waugh’s line in Decline and Fall: ‘I’m a public school man, you see. That means everything.’
                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



VIVIEN LEIGH - Celebrating her centenary


November 5th saw the usual firework displays across England, to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, over four hundred years ago. The day also marks the birthday of one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century – Vivien Leigh. Though the exact anniversary is past, the celebration of her acting achievement continues.

Born in India to British parents, at the height of the Raj, she was educated back in England, as a girl, at a Convent school, then taken on the equivalent of an extended Grand Tour of Europe by her father, who ensured she was (privately) educated in art, music and theatre.

Abandoning her acting studies at RADA for an early marriage to a barrister, Leigh Holman, gave her a daughter (Suzanne) and her stage surname. Her real passion, however, was not for her husband (though they remained lifelong friends after their divorce) but for acting.

This is not the place for a detailed account for her career, but what needs mentioning is her great beauty – which was as impressive in real life as when playing a role; her tempestuous affair then marriage to Laurence Olivier and their 20 years as the golden couple of British theatre and her immortality on screen as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

In both those roles she, a very English rose, played an American, as she did in later life, in a film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s novella, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. The British Film Institute (BFI) on the South Bank is showing an impressive range of her films this month and in December to mark her centenary, while the National Portrait Gallery is also commemorating it from later this month.

Though it is her film career that has kept her memory fresh, the theatre was her great love and she deserves to be remembered for her stage performances, often acting opposite (in an ill-fated Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet), or directed by (as in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Aldwych Theatre) Sir Laurence.

Their marriage caused as many problems as pleasures, especially as her mental health noticeably worsened. The situation was not helped by the fact that Olivier’s love for her clashed with an intense professional jealousy of any of her successes, or by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan’s insistence in pointing out how much better he thought Olivier was than his wife.

Whatever Tynan may have believed, other critics – and the general public – had no doubt of her talent, even though she suffered the usual frustration of being judged by her beauty as much as her acting ability.

Though it was Leigh who told Olivier their marriage was over, she was devastated when he eventually divorced her, to marry Joan Plowright, an actress who represented a new generation of theatre talent. She lacked Leigh’s extraordinary glamour but didn’t have the mental health issues that Olivier found so exhausting to deal with, and she was able to give him a new, young family (he already had a son, Tarquin, with his first wife, Jill Esmond) to mark the advent of the 1960s – the decade when he also took the reins at the National Theatre.

To the end of her life (she died of TB in 1967), despite finding happiness with actor Jack Merivale, she kept a picture of ‘Larry’ Olivier on her desk at home in Eaton Square. It is appropriate, then, in several ways, that her film career is being celebrated next door to the National Theatre and that her face, radiant as ever, looks out from a poster towards the NT’s commemorative statue of Olivier, in the role of Hamlet – the quintessential theatre role.


                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell


For details of the BFI Vivien Leigh season click here

THE AUDIENCE


Peter Morgan’s The Audience was a West End hit, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, dealing with her various Prime Ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. Yet a recent conversation, in the civilised surrounds of the National Gallery café, with a sometime Olivier Award panellist, was a reminder that the audience, ie the people who watch any play, are the one crucial bit of the theatre equation that is often overlooked.

Coincidentally, in the industry newspaper The Stage, The Theatrical Management Association’s David Brownlee has in the last few days given a detailed commentary on a report which looks at the age-range (and frequency with which each range visits) of theatre audiences.

Reports and mission statements seem to be the only place/time where the audience are given much attention. Artistic directors like to say how much they want to encourage young people to go to the theatre - thanklessly suggesting that the middle-aged and elderly who make up the vast majority of their customers and whose money makes theatre, ballet and opera possible, both via their taxes and directly through ticket purchase, aren’t nearly as welcome as the young.

Yet, arguably, that is often the only area where the audience feature much in theatres’ musings about what they are there for. The focus is on the writers, directors and actors, not the people for whom they write, direct and act.

Are audiences asked what plays they would like to see in the next season? Are audiences and their reaction given much attention in drama schools, or theatre histories? Unless their reaction is an extreme one, as with the premiere, a century ago, of the Nijinsky/Stravinsky ballet The Rite of Spring… How much do they feature in actors’ minds – other than when a renegade mobile phone goes off and performers break the ‘fourth wall’ to address the mobile’s owner directly? Are audiences seen simply as mobile wallets by producers? How often does a theatre critic write ‘I hated the show – but the audience around me loved it’ – or vice versa? We know what a critic thought by the end of his/her piece, but rarely what the audience – whose reaction to what’s on stage is crucial in the chemistry of a performance – made of it.

Michael Frayn wrote a play that did show an audience – the appropriately titled Look, Look. It had a notably brief run at the Aldwych Theatre in 1990 and its failure (rare in a career filled with hits like the incomparable Noises Off) may have put others off. It is arguable that the Ancient Greeks put the audience on stage in the form of the chorus, whose members gave a sort of immediate audience reaction to the events that the plays were depicting, but by and large audiences (in terms of dramatic involvement, if not of staging) have been left firmly on the other side of the proscenium arch.

A play about an audience would be harder to create than a novel, or indeed a film, but would be a wonderful subject for any playwright – and for the actors playing a sample of the people they have to please every night. It might be thought that such a play would be a classic case of navel-gazing by an art form and industry that can be self-obsessed, but the subject matter would presumably appeal - to an audience.

Sir John Gielgud once warned a playwright, who had just told him he’d written a play about a veteran stage actor, ‘Oh, backstage plays never do well!’ The writer was [Sir] Ronald Harwood and the play was The Dresser. Its success proved the great man wrong and a new play about an audience would be likely to, as well. It would certainly get even more intense attention than usual from awards panellists – whether from the Oliviers, the Evening Standard Drama Awards or others. And if all the world’s a stage then why not give the people who make it all possible (whatever their age or background) their moment in the limelight?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



WAR ON STAGE


Remembrance Sunday (this year on 10 November) is a time for commemorating those we have lost in wartime, especially in the two world wars that wrecked Europe (and its various neighbours, colonies and spheres of influence) twice in the twentieth century.

The Remembrance services make full use of the wonderful poetry that the Great War (as contemporaries called it) produced, particularly Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, with its lines about the dead growing not old as the survivors did.

When we think of war we therefore tend to think of poetry - and also of film, especially in the context of the Second World War, which has been represented in thousands of movies.

But theatre too has played its part in commemorating conflict, from the horrors of the Western Front in 1914-1918 to the terrors of taking part in airborne bombing raids from 1939-1945. Indeed, the oldest European play we have, The Persians, by Aeschylus, is about a war, between Persia and the city states of Ancient Greece.

Later this month Jude Law, who has appeared in films about soldiers in the American Civil War (Cold Mountain) and the Second World War (Enemy at the Gates) will star in the title role of Shakespeare’s best-known war play, Henry V, in the final play in the Michael Grandage company’s season at Wyndham’s.

Showing that nothing really changes in human society, whatever the period, King Henry wants to cover himself against charges of waging an unnecessary and, in effect, illegal war, by getting concrete proof of the rightness of his cause from the various legal and church authorities at his disposal.

A lighter treatment of war is George Farquhar’s early 18th century comedy, The Recruiting Officer, with which Josie Rourke launched her artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse, but even this play ends on a poignant note as the soldiers march away.

Of the twentieth century plays that deal with war, the most impressive is R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End, written and first performed in the 1920s and given a superb 21st century revival by David Grindley – a production that worked just as well, over a period of years, whoever the cast, though outstanding performances included those by David Haig and Malcolm Sinclair.

Terence Rattigan, the master of emotion concealed by a stiff upper lip, had an early (wartime) success with Flare Path, a play set on an aerodrome during the Second World War and based on his own active service in the RAF. The revival, in 2011, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was a hit and won Sheridan Smith an Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role. Many years later Rattigan wrote A Bequest to the Nation, set around the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and dealing with Nelson and his legacy.

Less heroic military figures were at the centre of Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, which dealt with British involvement in the Iraq war, while the relatively new St James Theatre opened with Sandi Toksvig’s army legal drama, Bully Boy, starring Anthony Andrews as a crippled veteran of another military conflict, the Falklands.

Traditionally wars have involved huge amounts of animal as well as human casualties. The contribution they have made are commemorated in David Backhouse’s sculpture on Park Lane and on stage they continue to be commemorated by the National Theatre’s superb production (now at the New London) of War Horse.

There was an excerpt from War Horse as part of last Saturday’s 50th anniversary celebration of the National Theatre’s foundation. Its inclusion was partly a nod to the play’s success, partly a recognition of the remarkable technical skills that the London stage (and, often, the National in particular) has at its disposal - but also because it combines the British love of animals, the continuing impact that war has on our society and the way that war has so often been the prism through which we have seen ourselves – whether Churchill’s ‘Few’ or Henry V’s ‘band of brothers’.

Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poet who was killed in action a week before the war ended (a tragic yet somehow entirely fitting irony given his criticism of the waste and misery of the Western Front) wrote that ‘My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ As War Horse, Henry V and many other plays show, theatre has its own way of evoking pity, pride and every other emotion whirled up by the experience of war.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



THE BEAUTIFUL Tristan Bates Theatre


In August each year the Edinburgh Festival takes many people away from London and up to Scotland. Meanwhile, mainstream London theatre carries on regardless. Eight years ago, however, the London fringe decided to strike back and launch a season of its own - the Camden Fringe Festival, which this year has some 180 productions in venues from Highgate to Covent Garden.

One of the most anticipated of these shows is Petar Miloshevski’s The Beautiful, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, attached to the Actors’ Centre, on 13 and 14 August, at 5.30pm. Petar is from Macedonia – from a town called Bitola, Macedonia’s second-largest city. An actor since the age of eight, he trained in his own country and in Bulgaria, at Sofia’s National Academy of Theatre and Film Art. He came to live and work in London six years ago.

In 2012 he performed The Beautiful, as a fifteen minute piece, in the Old Vic Tunnels, which at the time were used for a wide range of shows and performance art. That performance was the embryo of what will be presented at the Tristan Bates, as TheatrelandTalks discovered when we met Petar Miloshevski to discuss his work.

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The Beautiful got an amazing response at the Tunnels last year. It now runs for an hour, so it’s a much longer piece…

It is. The performance I gave was the starting point for what is now The Beautiful at the Tristan Bates theatre, but it was simply the origin, the inspiration. Just as artists might take a small sketch to create a full canvas, or a simple melody to build a symphony. It was the idea behind the title of the show that I wanted to develop.

You tend to work in solo shows, which are variously described – for example, on the Continent one-man shows tend to be described as mono drama. What term would you use and how would you categorise your style?

There’s no straightforward term over here to describe what I do. Just as Pina Bausch called her work something different – it wasn’t ‘modern dance’, it was ‘dance theatre’, so my work is also different: if I had to define it I’d say it was theatre with heightened physicality. The movement isn’t dance but it is choreographed. While I draw on a lot of sources, I get my main inspiration from music.

And your preference for being in solo shows?
 

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They’re the best way to express myself. It’s through them that I get the maximum delight from my profession, my vocation, as a theatre maker.

But what’s behind that impulse to make theatre?

I’m curious to explore why people behave in a certain way. Why they commit good or bad acts. Everything in us is so deeply rooted. Where does anger come from? You need to search for the root cause for every character’s action, for their response in every situation in any given space.



Petar’s previous show, Hope, won a clutch of awards, including ‘An Award for the Transmission of
Impulses of the Human Soul in the Language of Movement and Poetry’ – possibly the most poetic award category ever invented – at the International Chamber Theatre Festival in Hanover, Germany, earlier this year. But back to The Beautiful

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It’s an intriguing title.

That’s the idea! Is it because the character looks beautiful, or has a beautiful experience, or is searching for the nature of beauty?

In its earlier version it was about someone obsessed with beauty yet who was falling apart – physically, mentally, morally…

That’s right. The character is trapped in a world of his own creation. He can’t see what his actions are doing to him. The irony of his situation is beyond his grasp.

The show may be solo but it is multi-media?

That can be a misleading term. It’s multi-layered. I use texts by people as varied as Rimbaud, Bulgakov and Plath. The lighting plays a vital part, as does music – and movement.

How do you treat the texts?

They’re integrated into the performance but in an unexpected way. I might change the gender of the person, or the tense (past to present, for example) or the situation they’re in. The progression is an idea, followed by research to get appropriate texts, then making something new of and with them.

In Hope you were simply dressed. In The Beautiful you have a stunning costume.

Yes! It’s by Antonella Petraccaro-Gysler. It needed to be beautiful, for obvious reasons, but it has also been designed to distort the character’s body, to make him more mysterious, to remove misconceptions about what the character should look like, to blur the sense of who he really is.

Other than the clothes design, you’re credited for everything else: writer, actor, music, lighting, direction – and set!

That’s why these shows are hard work! But the reason I create and perform them is I want to get my theatrical ideas across to an audience and I have a very strong – and individual – sense of how to achieve that.

But you do have a producer?

Kerry Irvine. I’m delighted to work with her–and Antonella. Kerry came to see an early performance of Hope and fell in love with it. She came round to the dressing room after the show and said ‘I have to produce this show!’

So at least that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about!

I want to concentrate on my work – and my relationship with the audience.

Given your background and that you’ve continued to perform in Europe, do you find audiences over there very different from English ones?

I find their attention very different! When I was in Kiev earlier in the year, for example, everyone was completely focussed on what was happening on stage. No unwrapping sweets or munching crisps. It was very hot, but people didn’t even swig from bottles of water. The contrast with England is very marked. The way people behave is extraordinary. I feel like shouting out ‘Who’s in charge here!’ It’s madness.

So, no crisps at your show?

The Beautiful is a very intense experience – which is why we’re not letting latecomers in. I hope people will be focussed on what the character on stage is going through – not whether they feel like another sweet!

And how would you sum this up?

The Beautiful imparts a sense of beauty with a sense of dissociation: of a deranged, obsessed person who disintegrates, as a person, before our eyes. It’s also about the subtlety of existence – trying to perform as easily as possible. Especially when you are playing someone who is confused, who is going mad, it’s all the more important that the ideas you are trying to get across come over very easily. Even in deranged moments, the idea they express must be as effortless as a feather floating in the air.

Madness can be fascinating, or frightening. Is this show unique in making it beautiful?

It’s certainly unique, but what matters in any piece of theatre is not whether it’s beautiful – or ugly, or challenging. What matters is whether it moves you. I hope that that’s what The Beautiful does.

The play lived up to its name, with Antonella Petraccaro-Gysler’s stunning costume, well-chosen music and skilful lighting, but the most striking aspect, among many, was the intensity and imagination of the acting itself. Miloshevski’s performance was part acting, part movement bordering on dance. This, along with the exotic costume and make-up, gave the impression of someone transported to Covent Garden from one of the more experimental of the Edwardian-era Ballets Russes performances.

The way the character he played went mad before our eyes, reinforced this impression, conjuring up the ghost of Vaslav Nijinsky, the ‘God of the Dance’ who could equally have been referred to as ‘The Beautiful’ and whose mind disintegrated in the course of the First World War. Madness and talent traditionally walk close beside each other, but rarely can the distance between them have been as narrow – or as shifting – as in Miloshevski’s extraordinary tour de force. This is a work that will no doubt be seen in many more festivals across Europe in future and if their judging panels share even a part of the enthusiasm shown by the audience at the Tristan Bates then its deviser and performer is in line for another clutch of well-deserved awards.

Paul Ibell


For Petar Miloshevski’s website click here
Photographer Josh Brandao


GABRIEL at Shakespeare’s Globe


Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel, recently opened at Shakespeare’s Globe, is not so much a play as a series of playlets or sketches, linked and suffused by glorious music, largely by Henry Purcell and played by musicians headed by internationally-known trumpeter Alison Balsom.

Set in the London of the 1690s, in the dying days (literally, as the Queen faces her own mortality) of the reign of Queen Mary and her husband King William III, Gabriel provides an extraordinary cross-section of London life, from the Court to the backstreets, from Dutch prostitutes to naked Court trumpeters, from the tragic life of a royal child to the bawdy paranoia of a Thames waterman.

The latter, played by Sam Cox, is clearly meant to be the spiritual ancestor of many of today’s London cabbies, though the writing and the performance, however original, invevitably bring to mind a similar if less fully-developed character in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful film Shakespeare in Love. In Gabriel, the waterman claims to have been cured of scrofula, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, which was popularly believed to be curable by the placing of hands, on the sufferer, by an anointed king. The waterman’s cure was effected, he claims, by King Charles II, whom he was delivering to a mistress in a house by the Thames.

Monarchy and music is a theme that David Starkey is currently looking at in a series of programmes on BBC2, but for an immediate, often enchanting example of it action, Gabriel provides a wonderful introduction. Sales of Purcell (and Handel, whose music is also featured) CDs should, if there is any justice, soar as a result of this show, just as the music itself, on a perfect summer’s evening, rose from the stage to a dazzlingly blue sky, from where the helicopter that had drowned out some of the opening lines of the play had had the good grace to depart.

Grace and good humour were the order of the day. Though the groundlings who stand round the stage laughed as heartily as any normal audience, Gabriel - thanks to Alison Balsom’s seemingly effortless skill, allied to an ensemble and orchestra who may have stood slightly apart but who performed in an entirely integrated way – seemed to prove William Congreve’s adage ‘Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’, from his play The Mourning Bride, a tragedy staged in 1697, just a few years after the setting of Adamson’s Gabriel.

Unfair though it may be to single out individuals from such an ensemble piece, directed with great verve and evident enjoyment by Dominic Dromgoole, special credit has to go to Joshua James, an adult actor who plays the tragic young Duke of Gloucester, the doomed hope of the Stuart dynasty, who we see on stage, in various snapshot scenes, from the age of six to eleven, when the prince died.

Gabriel is one of the most unusual theatrical experiences on offer in London at the moment and well worth seeing even if classical music isn’t normally your thing. Given its format, it could have been fifteen or twenty minutes shorter (it runs at about two hours forty minutes) yet after an ecstatic curtain call that matched the amazing response, last year, to Mark Rylance’s Richard III, all thoughts of the hard wooden benches are banished on a balmy summer evening as one emerges from the theatre onto the banks of the Thames. Churchill called the river a ‘silver ribbon’ that ran through London’s history. After Gabriel, the only instrument that seems to match the silvery darkness of the Thames and all that it has witnessed is the trumpet’s melancholy yet defiant sweetness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



A TRIBUTE TO RUDOLPH NUREYEV at the London Coliseum


This week the London Coliseum hosts a short season starring Carlos Acosta, one of the few dancers to merit the over-used word ‘iconic’. Now 40 years old, Acosta still commands audiences in a way that few other contemporary dancers can compete with. Last week in the same theatre we were reminded of an earlier superstar of the ballet world. English National Ballet’s A Tribute to Rudolph Nureyev, which ran at the London Coliseum from Thursday 25 to Saturday 27 July, was a remarkable evening in honour of a unique talent.

The programme opened with a brief, superbly-made documentary, shown on a giant screen above the stage. This reminded the audience of Nureyev in his prime (with a recording of his solo in Le Corsaire, a new production of which ENB is touring this autumn), while intercutting performance and rehearsal footage of the man himself, with ‘talking head’ reminiscences from some of those who worked for him. His long and fruitful association with London Festival Ballet (as English National Ballet was known until it rebranded in 1989) was made very clear, as was his charisma and talent.

Unlike the Royal Ballet, in its own tribute some years ago, ENB didn’t make the mistake of having dancers perform under a screen showing pictures of Nureyev. On that occasion the size of the images dwarfed the dancers and such was Nureyev’s sheer presence that even a shot of him entering a room completely eclipsed what was happening below, on stage.

At the Coliseum, once the documentary was finished, the screen disappeared and the three-part programme started with Petrushka. This was a fascinating choice. Like Nureyev, it was very Russian. Unlike Nureyev, it is about a character (in fact a life-sized puppet) who is put-upon and defeated. No-one could ever describe Nureyev in those terms. After all, this was a man who leapt to freedom at an airport in Paris at the height of the Cold War, defying the Soviet authorities by defecting to the West.

In doing so he was the second Russian star to make the male dancer the centre of artistic attention in the West. The first was Nijinsky, the original - and still the most fascinating - male ballet dancer of the 20th century, who originated the role of Petrushka (in the ballet of that name, choreographed by Michel Fokine to a score by Stravinsky) and who was indeed broken – by mental illness – only a few years after performing the part. A sculpture of Nijinsky as Petrushka decorates the dancer’s grave in Paris.

The title role at the matinee (the first performance of this brief run at the Coliseum) was danced by Anton Lukovkin. Petrushka’s love interest, The Ballerina, was danced by Fernanda Oliveira, while Petrushka’s deadly rival, The Moor, was Yonah Acosta.

The second piece was Maurice Bejart’s Song of a Wayfarer, to music by Gustav Mahler. This work, for two men, had been created for Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi. A haunting piece about the inevitability of death in the face of the human desire to explore, change and search for new experience, it was danced by Francisco Bosch and Fabian Reimair.

The final part of the afternoon was Act III of Raymonda, with much of the company involved, headed by Elena Glurdjidze as Raymonda and Dmitri Gruzdyev as Jean de Brienne. This was an elegant finish to the programme, with a superb set design by Barry Kay. The whole evening was an intelligently staged, well-lit and good-looking tribute that did credit to its subject – but it was, inevitably, only that film clip at the start, with the inimitable Nureyev in his extraordinary prime, that alone did full justice to his talent.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



BALLET VERSION OF WIND IN THE WILLOWS AT CHRISTMAS


Mole, the central character in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, had a very un mole-like desire to get out of the ground, travel and see the world – hence the series of adventures that have delighted children and adults alike since the book’s publication in 1908.

He would be thrilled to hear that the Royal Ballet’s dance version of the story, directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett, will be transferring from the Linbury Studio – appropriately located underground, in the basement of the Royal Opera House – to the Duchess Theatre in Catherine Street.

The show will be at the Duchess from 11 December 2013 to 1 February 2014. This will make it a hugely welcome Christmas dance alternative to The Nutcracker, the seasonal ballet that has in the past been performed by both the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet in a slightly mad competition for child audiences over the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

The Wind in the Willows is far lighter, livelier, faster-paced and more involving than The Nutcracker and will make a change for parents who have sat through the latter one time too many. The story of The Wind in the Willows was first made into a stage play in the late 1920s by AA Milne, the author of another children’s classic – Winnie the Pooh. Far more recently it was a success for the National Theatre in Alan Bennett’s version in the Olivier auditorium, making full use of its extraordinary stage technology.

Since the pre-war (First as well as Second) London seasons of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, ballet has rarely made the leap from opera house to West End theatre. The most notable exception to this was Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, which was a huge hit at the Piccadilly.

The Duchess deserves credit for taking on a ballet but one hopes its owners know what they’re letting themselves in for: in an interview with The Guardian four years ago Will Tuckett said that children in the audience at The Wind in the Willows has been so excited by what was happening on stage that they broke the theatre seats…

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



THE CONTINUING CHARM OF COWARD - Private Lives at the Gielgud


Noël Coward’s Private Lives opened on 3 July at the Gielgud Theatre, in a production starring Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, directed by Jonathan Kent.

The play, which premiered in 1930, tells the story of a divorced couple who find themselves on adjoining balconies in a hotel, where both are on honeymoon with their new spouses.

Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman had a West End success with Private Lives a decade ago and the reviews for Chancellor and Stephens suggest this new production is a hit, too. However good the actors and creative team, however, the greatest credit goes to the playwright.

Private Lives has many of the qualities by which Noël Coward has charmed theatre audiences since his first hit, The Vortex, in 1924. That play’s best-known scene, between a drug addict son and a toy-boy loving mother who can’t accept that her youth is now over, was directly inspired by the closet scene in Hamlet, where Hamlet tells his mother, Queen Gertrude, some unwelcome home truths. Mind you, what home truths are ever welcome?

Private Lives also has a Shakespearean echo in the opening scene, where both exes go on to the balcony of their honeymoon hotel – to discover that they are in adjoining rooms. Often described as the second most famous balcony scene in all theatre, Coward’s is a clever twist on the most famous – in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Other characteristic Coward ingredients are the witty one-liners, the world-weariness, the chic sophistication of the main roles, the evening dress (which taps into nostalgia for the more elegant age of the 1930s) and the association with wealth and good breeding – in the reference to an offstage yacht, belonging to the Duke of Westminster.

Coward enjoyed the aristocracy, which is evident in his affectionate teasing of them in one of his most popular songs – ‘The Stately Homes of England’. He liked royalty even more and was a regular lunch guest of the Queen Mother. When he fell out of fashion in the 1950s, the age (after Look Back in Anger, in 1956) of the ‘kitchen sink’ drama, he was accused of snobbery. Why couldn’t he write about ‘real’ people and their problems, he was asked. The charge and the question were partly justified but, as ever, he had a riposte ready: ‘Duchesses have feelings too!’

Coward was not born into the upper classes. His adoption of the persona that made him famous and for which posterity remembers him may seem like social climbing today but in the period in which he lived and had, as a young actor, to make his way, class distinctions were hugely more prevalent and important than they are today. His creation of an apparently upper-class façade was not just a lifestyle choice – it was essential if he was to become a success.

Success was what Coward was after. What makes this so understandable is not the desperate need for fame that so many people parade on endless reality TV and talent shows but the simple fact of his talent. For Noël Coward was prodigiously talented, knew it and was unashamed of it in a very American way. He would do anything to make this talent known to the world. In that sense he is a modern man – and the modern world began in the 1920s, the decade in which he first became a national figure. The world where he first displayed his extraordinary range of talents – as actor, playwright, director, film-script writer, composer, lyricist, cabaret performer and poet – has vanished, but its appeal, the dinner jackets and deadpan humour, the yachts, the cocktails and laughter (in the words of his song, ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’) still exert their nostalgic hold on the imagination.

These and a whole host of other attributes of the inter-war years found their laureate in Noël Coward, whose talent to amuse (a phrase from his poignant song ‘If Love Were All’) continues to resonate with theatregoers as the century that made him (‘Twentieth Century Blues’) recedes into a distant memory, leaving nothing but a trail of cigarette smoke curling over an empty balcony, overlooking the Mediterranean.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



FLAMES ON THE THAMES


Saturday 29 June is the 400th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Globe theatre. The disaster was caused by canon fired during a performance of Shakespeare’s rarely-performed play Henry VIII.

The thatched roof (recreated in today’s Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank, not far from the site of the original) caught fire and the rest of the timber-based building soon followed suit.

Fire has been a perpetual hazard for theatres throughout London’s history. From the Globe’s burning down in 1613 to the Savoy Theatre’s terrible fire of 1990, which gutted the building, there has been a long history of buildings being consumed by flames, only to be rebuilt, as the Globe was in 1614 and the Savoy in 1993, when it was re-opened by the Princess of Wales.

This risk was partly a general one, shared by every building, from private houses to factories, in an era when modern-day fire safety regulations were unknown and partly a specific one, given the amount of potentially pyrotechnic technical equipment used in theatres.

Several of the playhouses that we associate with today’s Theatreland stand on the site of earlier theatres that were destroyed by fire. These include the Lyceum Theatre, which went up in flames in 1830, and the Royal Opera House which also burnt down – twice!

The best-known example was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which caught fire in 1809. The theatre was owned by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had moved from a career in the theatre into politics. He was at the House of Commons when the fire took hold. So intense was it that the flames could be seen from the Palace of Westminster. Sheridan drove to the theatre and watched his fortune (he had invested heavily in a new building on the site in 1794) literally going up in smoke.

Three years later a brand new building, whose frontage we can still see today, stood on the site of the charred ruins. Then, as before and after, Theatreland lived by its motto: ‘The show must go on.’

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Paul Ibell



WHERE HAVE ALL THE STARS GONE?


An article published yesterday (26 June) in The Stage, the theatre newspaper industry, asked why London seems not to produce theatre stars from within the West End, tending to take them from other media. This is in marked contrast, it argues, with New York’s Broadway.

The article looked at musical theatre performers but there is a wider issue worth looking at: that of stage performers in general.

Why is that so few of the actors who work primarily on stage are known only to the theatre community rather than the general public?

The answer, largely, is that the days when the stage was the main platform for performance is long gone, with television and film offering a much wider reach – and, crucially, far more money. It’s become something of a cliché that actors who love the theatre need to appear in a TV series or make a film (commercial, not arthouse) in order to fund themselves during the run of a play.

Another reason, which goes against the grain of contemporary social fashion, is that the more distant people are, the greater their glamour and therefore the stronger their appeal. Ironically, while film enables far more people to see stars, in a short time, than would be the case with the theatre, it creates a crucial distance from the performers. The silver screen, long after the disappearance of the golden age of Hollywood, still makes actors literally larger than life and sets them apart. Anyone with the price of a ticket can walk into a theatre: no-one can just turn up at a film set.

One of the many reasons theatre has survived as long as it has, apart from its inherent power and beauty as an art form, is that has embraced the pulling power of films stars rather than rejecting them. The first film stars were drawn from the ranks of stage actors. Now, in a mirror image, theatre producers are delighted to welcome big box-office draws from the film world on to the stage to pull in the punters.

In an age when glamour seems to belong to the film and fashion worlds rather than that of theatre, playwrights and lyricists can recognise the fact and even celebrate it. The Lloyd Webber/Rice musical Evita has a scene where Eva Peron is being dressed and made up to look her best in a worldwide tour. In a tribute from theatre to Hollywood, she sings: ‘I’m their saviour/that’s what they call me/ so Lauren Bacall me/anything goes’.

The lyrics also recognise another crucial difference between screen and stage. Hollywood (and the British and European film industries) recognises the need, on public occasions, for its stars not just to be good-looking but to be beautifully coiffed and dressed. Yes, they may be snapped by paparazzi when casually dressed and not looking their best, but in public and specifically on the red carpet at premieres, they look the proverbial million dollars.

London’s theatre stars used to abide by such dress codes – indeed it was often written into the women’s contracts that they only appear in public made-up and formally dressed. In the 1930s and ‘40s men would go to rehearsals dressed in a suit. Stars as diverse as Ivor Novello and Rex Harrison would be picked up from the stage door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (where Harrison appeared in My Fair Lady) in a Rolls Royce. In Novello’s case this was for a journey of a couple of hundred yards to his flat above another theatre in the Aldwych!

There was a saying, in 1930s Theatreland, that ‘if you want to be a success you have to look like one’. The 1960s and, even more, the 1970s put paid to that as social changes swept formal dress away – among the audiences as well as the performers.

For some reason London went to an extreme with this, and still does, other than at venues like the Royal Opera House. Visitors to Theatreland from the Continent and from the United States frequently comment on how informally (to put it politely) British audiences dress when they go out for a night in the theatre.

The result has been familiarity breeding contempt. The social and financial imperatives that have transferred power from the stage to the screen (and glamour relies on the presumption of power as much as it does on physical beauty) may be irrevocable, but if the theatre world wants to regain some of its magic, it would be well-advised to ask its leading lights to dress as if they were stars from an earlier age. Wearing an evening gown or smart suit when emerging from the stage door may seem unnecessary but surely it’s not much of a burden? Stardom is in essence a construct (all those camera and lighting tricks on film, after all) so a little bit of effort is part of the deal between performer and public.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Paul Ibell




TENNESSEE WILLIAMS AND THE SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH


Wednesday 12 June saw the press night of the latest London production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, a play that premiered in 1959, close to the end of a string of major successes that established him as one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.

The current production, directed by Olivier Award-winning Marianne Elliott, is headed by Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich. They play an ageing film star (Alexandra Del Lago)and her gigolo lover (Chance Wayne), checked into a hotel in St Cloud, the Southern town where Chance was born.

The play has received mainly excellent reviews (especially from Charles Spencer in the Telegraph) though some reservations have been expressed about the red-haired wig that Miss Cattrall wears for the role. This isn’t as bad as all that and in fact gives her a slight look of Francesca Annis – an actress who should surely be given her own opportunity to play Alexandra Del Lago before long. A more serious criticism was made by Michael Billington in the Guardian, where he expressed a dislike of the play’s inherent melodrama.

But it is this that accounts for much of Williams’s appeal. Many of his works are closer to operas than plays – not least in their length – and if they owe anything to previous writers it is to Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles with their tales of doomed lovers, savage violence, and the inherent instability and cruelty of mortal life.

Williams was highly influenced by these Greek tragedians, while the operatic aspects of his work were reinforced by prolonged stays in Italy, a country that profoundly inspired him as a writer. The themes of Sweet Bird of Youth – the loss of innocence, the punishment for mistakes and wrong turnings in life (let alone sins), the despair that accompanies growing older; these are all in the tradition of classical culture, yet they are given a particular and poignant twist that is Williams’s own.

In Elliott’s production, designer Rae Smith has created an ante-bellum Southern portico which doubles as the front to the hotel where Alexandra and Chance are staying as well as the home of Boss Finley, the corrupt and violent local bigshot politician, a man who addresses public meetings about his sense of God’s guiding hand, while his thugs, led by his son, beat up a heckler.

Violence is threatened almost from the outset. Chance, we learn, has been told to stay out of town.
His teenage romance with Boss Finley’s daughter, a beautiful blonde with the captivating name of Heavenly, has gone on for twelve years, to the fury of her father. Chance’s last encounter with her has had horrifying results and Boss Finley proposes a very biblical eye-for-an-eye punishment, should Chance refuse to leave Heavenly and St Cloud for ever. Bruno Poet’s lighting – especially the lightning flashes of a thunderstorm – adds atmosphere to a situation which reeks of bigotry and barely-repressed fury.

Williams is in many ways the laureate of the lost, and the play makes painful viewing for anyone who has ever failed to fulfil a dream or harked back, constantly, to a relationship that has no hope. Chance, superbly played by Numrich, still clings not only to his failed romance with Heavenly, but to his deluded (yet understandable and pitiable) ambitions as an actor.

It becomes increasingly clear, to everyone else on stage, that his only hope of salvation is to abandon both, but he cannot. To give them up would be to destroy his soul: a fate he considers worse than the physical vengeance Boss Finley’s men have in mind. The terrible irony is that his soul is already destroyed – it has unravelled bit by bit, along with his once devastating looks.

Like all good tragedies, Sweet Bird of Youth has moments of comic relief and Williams skilfully interweaves the two – including a late scene when Chance’s final hopes are dashed. His desperation, which is degrading for him and painful for the audience, is interspersed with some one-liners from Alexandra. What makes this all the more cruel is that the laughs are raised not so much from the wit of the lines as the setting in which they are made and the manner of their delivery. In effect, then, this is comedy of situation – when the situation is heartbreaking.

That the audience cares so much for Chance by the end of the play is as much a tribute to Seth Numrich’s acting, as to Williams’s writing. He works well with Cattrall’s Alexandra Del Lago but is at his best in the scene when, drunk and pill-popping, he confronts those he left behind in St Cloud, most of whom feel nothing but contempt for him. His attempts to impress them simply reinforce their disdain and this in turn leads to Chance behaving ever more self-destructively. A snapshot of the vicious circle that has defined his adult life.

Williams is famous for his female characters and the empathy he shows them. Two minor roles here demonstrate this talent while showing empathy of their own towards Chance. Lucy Robinson as Boss Finley’s mistress, Miss Lucy, and Brid Brennan as Heavenly’s Aunt Nonnie, both represent fundamental female decency. The play attacks 1950s racism and corruption, and Williams is always on the side of the poetic, the theatrical, the outsider: however, Miss Lucy and Aunt Nonnie prove that humanity, kindness and common sense were to be found in small town America too.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a co-production between the Old Vic (headed by Kevin Spacey) and the team of Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer, who between them run the theatre production and ownership company Nimax. This production, of an American classic in one of London’s most historic theatres, runs until 31 August and will be a must-see for anyone with a serious interest in theatre – and who is beginning to wonder whether the bird of youth is in danger of flying away from them, too.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Paul Ibell
Paul Ibell is writing a biography of Tennessee Williams for Reaktion Books




ROYALTY AND THE STAGE:
the link between the crown and London theatre, from Charles II onwards.


On Tuesday 4 June, London marked the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation with a service at Westminster Abbey, where monarchs have been crowned since 1066. Quite apart from its political role, the monarchy is often cited as a major tourist draw: the pomp and pageantry, the sense of history made flesh, all act as a magnet for visitors to this country.

What is often overlooked is the importance the institution has played in London’s other great attraction – the theatre.

When King Charles I lost his head, on 30 January 1649, it was not just his reign that Oliver Cromwell wanted to bring to an end; it was the theatre, too. London’s first West End was located, roughly speaking, between Fleet Street and the Thames, with playhouses at Blackfriars, Whitefriars and Salisbury Court. The Civil War seemed to consign them to history and they fell into disrepair. Performing and attending the theatre became an illicit activity. The future looked bleak.

Eleven years later, on 29th May, all this changed when King Charles II entered London on his 35th birthday and the monarchy was restored. With it came the theatre. Charles had been a great fan of it when in exile in France and the Netherlands and was determined to continue to enjoy it now he was home and in power.

He granted royal charters for two acting companies, the most famous of which was that for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which opened in 1663. The current playhouse is the fourth on the site and this year marks the 350th anniversary of the Theatre Royal’s foundation.

Charles not only brought back the playhouse, he made a fundamental change to how theatre in England was performed, when he insisted that female roles be played – by women! As anyone who has seen Tom Stoppard’s film Shakespeare in Love will have been reminded, Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote female roles for teenage boys, as it was considered indecent for women to appear on stage.

Charles was very much a ladies’ man who enjoyed a good time – not for nothing was he called ‘The Merry Monarch’ – so he insisted on women playing female roles. The theatre of his reign (1660-1685) also reflected his tastes in other ways – Restoration Comedy, as a genre, was elegant, highly-sexed, sophisticated yet bawdy.

Few of Charles’s successors have been as close an admirer of the stage, though King Edward VII shared his taste for actresses, most notably with one of his best-known mistresses, Lillie Langtry.

In more recent times King George V, the present Queen’s grandfather, only went reluctantly at the request of his wife, Queen Mary. She persuaded him to attend Ivor Novello’s spectacular musical, Glamorous Night at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1935 – the year of his Silver Jubilee. The show had a bitter-sweet end that was typical of Novello’s  musicals, and at a reception later the King asked the composer to write something with a happier ending next time – ‘Because I don’t like to see the Queen cry!’

George’s desire to spend as little time in a theatre as possible was best demonstrated when he was asked which his favourite opera was. ‘That’s easy! La Boheme!’ ‘Why is that, Your Majesty?’ ‘Because it’s the shortest!’

George’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, who later became Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI, then Queen Mother when her husband died, greatly enjoyed the theatre and was a personal friend of Noël Coward. Her favourite birthday treat was to be taken to the theatre – or ballet – by her daughters, the Queen and Princess Margaret.

The Queen attends Royal Variety performances more from a sense of duty rather than enthusiasm, generally preferring horse boxes to those in the theatre, but Princess Margaret was a regular visitor to Theatreland and had a great love for and knowledge of the ballet. She also had a penchant for whisky, particularly Famous Grouse, so it is entirely appropriate that the plaque, commemorating her long and happy relationship with the Royal Ballet, is located, in the Royal Opera House, in the steps leading to the Crush Bar.

Other royals who deserve recognition for their support of the theatre are the late Lord Harewood, the Queen’s cousin, who ran English National Opera (ENO) for many years and was the first ‘working royal’ of his generation, and Princess Alexandra, another cousin of the Queen, who is patron of English National Opera.

ENO, some twenty five years ago, decided to stop playing the national anthem on the first night of the new season – supposedly because it ‘distracted’ the audience before the opera overture began. It would be appropriate, in this coronation anniversary year, if this simple mark of respect, which always created a frisson of excitement and pride, could be reinstated.

Similarly, it would be a very welcome gesture if a major annual celebration of London theatre, such as the Olivier Awards, were to be attended by a member of the royal family, as a mark of its continued interest in theatre as an art form – and as a leading cultural and business ambassador for this country. Prince Charles is known for his taste for opera. Perhaps he will, in due course, emulate his namesake and further the link between crown and stage, first forged all those years ago.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Paul Ibell


TRANSATLANTIC THEATRE TRAFFIC: an article on the links between British and American theatre, published in The Spectator on 9 March 2013. READ ARTICLE