Beat the Devil review – Bridge Theatre

My first indoor theatre experience after lockdown was, perhaps inevitably, this Covid-19 monologue written by David Hare about his own experience of having the virus.

To make this play possible, the Bridge Theatre has had the majority of its seats removed, enabling a masked audience to sit in socially isolated clusters. And it works. It feels safe. One hopes it will prove a viable model for other theatres to follow suit.

Hare’s rage-filled, and often very funny, script is brought to life by Ralph Fiennes on a simple set that consists of little more than a desk and chair. In a blue shirt and jeans, often with his hands on his hips, Fiennes is an engaging and likable narrator for this pandemic diary packed with politics and polemic.

Unsurprisingly, Hare directs much of his anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, and makes some fascinating points about the ministerial use of language; but what struck me most about this play was that it was the first time – despite all the blanket media coverage and survivors’ stories – that I had a genuine sense of what it must be like to have the virus invading your body.

Hare doesn’t skimp on the detail, and Fiennes gets to deliver delicious lines about food tasting like “sewage” and his skin turning the “colour of Bela Lugosi”. There are touching, intimate descriptions too – such as the moment when Hare’s wife Nicole places herself on top of him like a duvet in an attempt to cool his fever.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and running for just under an hour, this is a simple, beautifully written piece, that really helped me take stock of the extraordinary events of the last few months.

Unlike the pandemic, I didn’t want it to end.

Beat the Devil is at the Bridge Theatre in London on assorted dates until 31 October

A Midsummer Night’s Dream review – Bridge Theatre

5 star review

If you go to see this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I can recommend the standing tickets. Yes – your feet might ache a bit, but you come out feeling like you’ve been at a wild party you didn’t want to end.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the beginning: I took my 19 year old son to see this. He’s studying for a degree in Computer Science, and had never seen a Shakespeare. There was an element of risk.

But he’s also a massive Game of Thrones fan, so his reaction to the sight of GoT’s statuesque Gwendoline Christie encased in a glass box as we walked into the pit was worth the ticket price alone.

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It’s an inspired piece of casting. Christie makes an imposing Hippolyta, the captured queen of the Amazons, and a magical Titania, queen of the fairies.

It’s also fun seeing Brienne of Tarth dressed up like a nun.

The early scenes are deliberately drab and make the explosion of music and acrobatics as the action shifts to the forest all the more dramatic. The set is ever-changing, with characters and beds gliding in sideways, or rising from the floor and taking flight.

There are sublime performances throughout. Oliver Chris, as Theseus/Oberon, shares several hilarious scenes with Hammed Animashaun’s unforgettable Bottom – one of them in a bathtub. The audience roared.

Not to be outdone, the “rude mechanicals” (they even have it written on their backs) squeeze plenty of laughs out of their Pyramus and Thisbe play-that-goes-wrong.

I also enjoyed the excellent chemistry – and sense of confusion – between the bewitched lovers in the forest: Isis Hainsworth (Hermia), Tessa Bonham Jones (Helena), Paul Adeyefa (Demetrius) and Kit Young (Lysander).

Director Nicholas Hytner takes delightful liberties with Shakespeare’s text, switching key characters, and making inventive use of the magic love juice.

Which brings me to David Moorst’s Puck. I saw Moorst in one of his earliest roles in Violence and Son at the Royal Court many moons ago. It was obvious then he was something special. Here he is simply extraordinary. It’s impossible to take your eyes off his twitchy, shape-shifting Puck.

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There’s a genuine sense of joy in this production. I’ve never seen an audience laugh so much at a Shakespeare play. To say there’s a party atmosphere is something of an understatement.

My son is already planning to go again.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 August

Alys, Always – Bridge Theatre

“You’re not famous. I looked you up – you don’t exist.”

Based on the 2012 novel by Harriet Lane, Alys, Always is the story of a young woman’s journey from “dogsbody” to somebody.

Joanne Froggatt is Frances, an office junior on the books section of a Sunday newspaper, whose life changes when she comes across a road accident involving the wife – the titular Alys – of famous writer Laurence Kyte (Robert Glenister).

Invited to meet the Kyte family, Frances finds herself drawn into in a world of money and status – one which she’s unwilling to leave.

Lucinda Coxon’s stage adaptation expertly weaves plenty of laughs into the play’s tense fabric. Under Nicholas Hytner’s direction, there’s never a dull scene. The car crash at the start is cleverly realised through narration, back projection and superb sound design.

Froggatt is perfectly cast as the sweet-faced but scheming journalist. She conveys volumes with just the tiniest expressions. It’s fascinating to watch how her friendship with Alys’s grown-up daughter Polly (Leah Gayer) turns into something more psychologically complex. (It’s Polly who says to Frances the line quoted at the start of this review.)

High-brow theatre it’s not (despite the live cellist), but anyone who enjoys their thrillers read by the pool or watched on prime-time TV should consider giving this a go.

Alys, Always is at the Bridge Theatre until 30 March

A Very Very Very Dark Matter – Bridge Theatre

Small skeletons. Time travel. Bloody Belgians.

Writer Martin McDonagh kicked off 2018 with one of the best movies of the year – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – and ends it with one of its weirdest plays.

Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Andersen, whose Very Very Very Dark secret is that he keeps imprisoned in a box in his attic in Copenhagen a small Congolese woman who writes all of his stories.

As if that’s not horrific enough, he’s also cut one of her legs off. Marjory, as he calls her, is played by newcomer Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles. It’s an unforgettable performance in a play full of moments you’ll never unsee.

There are laughs aplenty to be had amid the horror. Not least Andersen’s visit to an effing and blinding Charles Dickens (Phil Daniels) with a dark secret of his own.

What’s it all about? Colonialism (the blood-drenched Belgians)? Fake news? Who cares? It’s got a haunted concertina. Somehow I haven’t yet got round to mentioning the gravel-throated narration by Tom Waits.

By the end it all feels like some kind of twisted pantomime. Perhaps that’s why I’ve booked to see it again at Christmas.