Death of a Salesman review – Piccadilly Theatre

5 star review

So many superlatives have already been used to describe this production of Arthur Miller’s classic, originally a hit at the Young Vic, that it seems almost pointless to seek out any more.

Now in the West End, this version – with the Lomans as an African-American family – is one not to be missed. It is poetic, moving and devastating.

At its heart are four stunning performances. Wendell Pierce enthralls as Willy Loman, the salesman of the title for whom the American Dream has remained out of reach. As his wife Linda Loman, Sharon D Clarke crackles with love, anger and grief, and Sope Dirisu and Natey Jones are outstanding as the Loman sons Biff and Happy.

Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell fill the the production with beautiful and subtle directorial touches such the use of silhouettes and as the way the characters sometimes find themselves repeating actions as if they have been transformed into animated gifs. The songs that permeate the story are beautifully handled.

Anna Fleischle’s impressive set, with its floating furniture and window frames, fills the whole play with hallucinatory unease.

On the night I saw this, a scene between Willy and his sons in Act Two was so emotionally charged that a man near me in the stalls spontaneously began to applaud. His solitary clap, ironically, destroyed the moment. But that’s how astounding the acting is in this production.

As the cast received a standing ovation at the end you could see it in their eyes that they know they are part of something very special indeed.

(This review was written after news broke of the ceiling collapse at the Piccadilly Theatre on 6 November. I was at the performance the previous evening. I wish those injured a speedy recovery and hope the production is able to get back to normal as soon as possible.)

Click here for the latest details on Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly Theatre

 

 

 

The Man in the White Suit review – Wyndham’s Theatre

3 star review

Based on the 1951 Ealing comedy film, this stage adaptation of The Man in the White Suit stars Stephen Mangan as Sidney Stratton, a Cambridge-educated chemist who, while working at a textile mill, develops a fabric that can’t be stained and never wears out.

While writer and director Sean Foley has come up with an inventive and visually impressive production, it’s been cut from so many stylistic cloths that I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was trying too hard to fit everyone.

Foley throws everything into the fast-moving mix: a skiffle band, pyrotechnics, clever stage tricks, a dance number and impressive scene changes. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough big laughs to sew it all together.

The humour lurches from Chuckle Brothers-style lab explosions and fart jokes to satirical swipes about the cheap clothing industry and the now obligatory gags about Brexit. And there’s a sudden moment of violence that seems oddly out of place.

On the plus side Mangan is, as ever, hugely likeable in the role of Stratton and gives his character just the right blend of geekiness, charm and accident-prone enthusiasm, though a running joke about him being Dutch soon wears thin.

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Kara Tointon in The Man in The White Suit (photo: Nobby Clark)

Kara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley, the smart and witty mill owner’s daughter, with an accent so posh that she sounds like a young Margaret Thatcher.

The pair get all the best scenes, including a hair-raising car journey through the countryside and a dance in act two that allows Tointon to show off her Strictly skills.

It’s a shame that Sue Johnston, as Stratton’s friend Mrs Watson, feels so underused.

Michael Taylor’s beautifully detailed set design steals the show. Even the scene transitions earn applause. One minute we are watching the annoyingly chirpy mill workers sinking pints in The Frinley Arms, the next we are in a busy factory full of bubbling and smoking test tubes or the grand interior of Mr Birnley’s mansion.

The songs, by Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, work well too in establishing the 1950s setting, with the on-stage band led by the impressive Matthew Durkan.

Stratton turns from hero to hate figure when both the factory bosses and the workers realise that his invention is likely to put them out of work, and there’s a wider message here about consumerism and big industry’s control over supply and demand.

But the show’s desire to cram in so much material ends with it feeling like an ill-fitting suit in need of adjustment.

The Man in the White Suit is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 11 January 2020

Run For Your Wife review – The Mill at Sonning

4 star review

Back in 1982, as an impecunious student, I used to get standby tickets at my local theatre, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford. I’d turn up half an hour before the show and often get a seat in the stalls for £1.50. Happy days.

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I got to see one of the very first performances of Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife. I’m pretty sure it was Cooney himself in the lead role. The show itself went on to run for eight years in the West End and has been seen all over the world.

Cut to 2019. Cooney – now 87 – is directing this latest revival of his biggest hit in the intimate surroundings of The Mill at Sonning. The humour may have dated somewhat, but Run For Your Wife remains a masterpiece of plot construction and comic timing.

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Michelle Morris and Nick Wilton in Run For Your Wife (photo: Andreas Lambis)

The story itself centres around John Smith, a bigamist cabbie who has a wife, Mary, in Streatham and another wife, Barbara, in Wimbledon. He maintains his double life through a complicated timetable, but things go wrong when he ends up in hospital after a mugging.

Cooney has gathered a first class cast to bring his classic farce back to the stage.

Nick Wilton is likeably roguish as John, whose constant look of bewilderment-cum-panic is a source of much amusement. He shares a great chemistry with Jeffrey Holland (of Hi-de-Hi! fame), who plays Stanley, John’s neighbour in Streatham.  I particularly enjoyed Holland’s scenes in which he has to pretend to be a farmer in order to back up John’s increasingly bizarre cover stories.

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Michelle Morris and Jeffrey Holland (photo: Andreas Lambis)

A lot of laughs come from confused telephone conversations involving John’s wives: Michelle Morris and Judy Buxton (as Mary and Barbara) bring these to life with an impressive repertoire of baffled expressions. As you might expect, there’s also plenty of door slamming and disrobing.

An excellent supporting cast includes Cooney regular David Warwick as the apron-wearing DS Porterhouse, Elizabeth Elvin as no-nonsense Sgt Troughton and Delme Thomas as John and Barbara’s gay neighbour Bobby.

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Delme Thomas and Judy Buxton (photo: Andreas Lambis)

A word on the wonderful attention to detail in Jackie Dougan’s Eighties set design: surely I wasn’t the only person to notice the little patches of Artex ceiling above the colourful walls? And those giant phones with aerials brought back many memories.

It may be almost 40 years since Ray Cooney started writing Run For Your Wife, but this production is proof he is still the Farce Meister-General.

Run For Your Wife is at the Mill at Sonning until 23 November

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noises Off review – Garrick Theatre

4 star review

On the afternoon of my trip to London to review Noises Off I was in a dentist’s chair having a dodgy filling replaced with a lot of noisy drilling.

A few hours later – in a stroke of comic timing of which surely the play’s author Michael Frayn would have been proud – the effect of the anaesthetic wore off just as I took my seat at the Garrick Theatre.

I went from not being able to feel half my face to feeling like I’d been whacked in the mouth by a well-aimed plate of sardines.

By coincidence, it’s a plate of sardines that causes no end of mayhem in Frayn’s intricately constructed meta-comedy about a theatre company putting on an old-school, trousers-down farce called Nothing On.

Over three acts we get to see the play in rehearsal, then witness it from a backstage point of view and finally in a disastrous live performance.

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Noises Off cast (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Jeremy Herrin’s gloriously funny production opened at the Lyric Hammersmith in June – the theatre where Noises Off was first seen in 1982. (Interestingly, Frayn conceived the idea for Noises Off  backstage at the Garrick, some 12 years earlier, while watching a performance of his play The Two of Us.)

This West End transfer features some of the same cast, including Meera Syal as the show’s star Dotty Otley, Lloyd Owen as its sarcastic director, Simon Rouse as sozzled actor Selsdon and Daniel Rigby as awkward leading man Garry Lejeune. Among the new faces on board is Miranda’s Sarah Hadland.

Frayn’s play both sends up actors and their fragile egos and celebrates their “show must go on” attitude in the face of chaos. Its genius comes in the choreography of that chaos – particularly in the second act where the frantic backstage bickering takes place in silence as the play continues out front.

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Noises Off (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Herrin’s cast work superbly well together to bring all this off so successfully. I particularly enjoyed Lisa McGrillis’s performance as Brooke, the actress who keeps losing her contact lenses as well as her clothes, and Adrian Richards’ hassled stage manager Tim. And Rigby’s spectacular prat-fall down a flight of stairs surely deserves some kind of award.

Two hours after curtain up I suddenly realised I’d forgotten completely about my troublesome tooth. Proof, if it were needed, that laughter is the best medicine.

Noises Off is at the Garrick Theatre until 4 January 2020

The Watsons review – Menier Chocolate Factory

 

5 star review

I remember the thrill, back in my distant university days, of my first encounter with Pirandello’s meta-theatre classic Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Well, Laura Wade has stirred me into a similar state of excitement with her new play, based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.

For the first half an hour or so The Watsons runs like a familiar period drama – all ball gowns, marriage talk and dashing suitors – and then in walks a maid who drops a jarring Star Wars reference during a conversation with the lead character, Emma Watson.

The maid turns out to be Laura, the playwright, who has written herself into the story just at the point where Jane Austen gave up on it.

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Grace Molony (Emma Watson) in The Watsons (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Are you keeping up? What follows is a glorious exploration of the creative process and what it would be like if fictional characters could decide their own destinies.

“Yes, it is a bit like the Pirandello,” admits Laura during a phone call in which she’s pitching her play idea. Meanwhile, Jane Austen’s creations are adjusting to life in the modern world, discovering smart phones and voting for self-determination.

Director Samuel West injects the whole meta experience with a huge sense of fun as well as emotional punch.  There’s a wonderful moment where the Austen characters spy a plastic chair as they arrive for a meeting with Laura, and regard it with a mix of bewilderment and suspicion.

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The Watsons cast (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Grace Molony is perfect in the role of Emma, who from the outset seems a heroine destined to break from convention. Her sparky conversations with the excellent Louise Ford as Laura are a joy. There’s great support too from Laurence Ubong Williams as the handsome cad Tom Musgrave and Joe Bannister as the socially awkward Lord Osborne.

Overall, this is a fantastic timey-wimey trip into the Jane Austen universe that’s surely destined for even bigger things in the West End.

Go on, Laura, you could write that ending now.

The Watsons is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 16 November

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. review – Royal Court

4 star review

Blood-drenched mythology, #MeToo monsters and surreal domesticity intertwine in this quartet of curiosities by Caryl Churchill.

Directed with lashings of visual flair by James Macdonald, each play feels distinct yet work cumulatively to create a satisfying whole.

The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs stage is framed by lightbulbs like a giant dressing room mirror. The effective lighting design by Jack Knowles places every scene within against a pitch black void, creating an air of unease. 

The intrigue of the titles carries through into the works themselves. Imp, the longest piece, is preceded by three shorts (which are separated by a juggler and a balancing act).

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Glass (photo: Johan Persson)

The opener, Glass, is the most enigmatic of the four. It features a conversation between a clock, a vase and a toy dog on a mantelpiece, while a girl made of glass (“she looks like people look”) encounters a scene of child abuse.

In Kill, the character of Gods (Tom Mothersdale) recounts gory stories from Greek myth while sitting on a cloud, smoking.  Below him a child scribbles furiously in a book.

The allegory thickens in Bluebeard’s Friends, set at a dinner party in which the attendees engage in fractured exchanges about a friend-turned-serial killer.  “He was good at stories and we always believed him,” says one. “And he played the piano so beautifully,” observes another. Many of the lines echo those that have been said in the context of the #MeToo revelations. In the background hang six blood-stained dresses, like headless corpses.

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Imp (photo: Johan Persson)

The final play features four actors from the previous plays. Deborah Findlay is scarily good as Dot, a chair-bound ex-nurse with temper issues who keeps an imp in a bottle. The ever-excellent Toby Jones plays her creepy cousin Jimmy, who runs obsessively to battle depression.  There’s strong support from Louisa Harland as their niece Niamh and Mothersdale as homeless Rob.

While Imp feels slightly overlong, it has the richest characterisation and the sharpest lines. I loved Jimmy’s casual allusions to plot lines from Shakespeare and Oedipus. Dot’s rage during one scene gave me goosebumps.

In my notes, I scribbled down a line from Bluebeard’s Friends which pretty much sums up this whole, intriguing theatrical event. It’s said by Toby Jones during a debate about turning the blood-stained frocks into a marketing opportunity:

“So that’s quite noir.”

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. is at the Royal Court until 12 October

 

 

 

 

 

Youth without God review – Coronet Theatre

4 star review

Christopher Hampton’s Youth without God begins with one of those lines that instantly gets a chuckle for its apparent nod to contemporary events.

“Hello,” the Teacher (Alex Waldmann) nervously greets the audience. “So, the world seems to be spiralling towards disaster again, doesn’t it?”

Hampton’s play, based on the novel by Odon von Horvath, focuses however on darker times in the 20th Century.  Set in a small German town in 1935, a grim chain of events is set in motion when the Teacher reprimands one of his students for making a racist comment in an essay.  The boy’s father complains and the class turns against him.

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Youth without God cast (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Director Stephanie Mohr creates a very real sense of unease throughout this production, which moves the story from classroom to bar, and from mountain range to courtroom.  Justin Nardella’s set design makes inventive use of blackboards to suggest the different locations. Starkly lit, it often feels like you are watching a black and white film.

The scenes where the Teacher joins his class on what appears to be a Hitler Youth camping trip are particularly well done. The boys sing a patriotic song at the audience – their eyes blazing with zeal – as they wear accordians as backpacks. It’s chilling stuff. The young actors, including Anna Munden as runaway girl Eva, are all excellent.

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Youth without God cast (photo: Tristram Kenton)

Waldmann’s Teacher is instantly likeable, yet politically naive. He soon finds out the dangers of telling the truth instead of being an unquestioning employee of the state. David Beames shines in multiple roles, including the Teacher’s unsupportive Headmaster, a wine-loving Priest, and a roguish character known as Julius Caesar.

This was my first visit to Notting Hill Gate’s Coronet Theatre. If this engaging production is anything to go by, it definitely won’t be my last.

Youth without God is at the Coronet Theatre until 19 October

 

 

 

classroom

 

Often it feels like you are watching a black and white film. 

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In one particularly chilling scene