Theatre 2020: Pick of the plays

Here are a just a few of the plays The Man in the Grand Circle has his eye on this year.

Among the star names coming to the London stage are Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke (see above photo) in Anya Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull for the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse Theatre in March.  Timothee Chalamet and Eileen Atkins appear in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic the following month, while back at the Playhouse Theatre in June is one of my favourite actresses (I’ve been lucky enough to interview her twice), Jessica Chastain, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

If you can’t wait that long for your Ibsen fix, then check out Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House – a “radical” retelling of the story at the Young Vic in February.

For Samuel Beckett fans it’s like Christmas all over again in January. Trevor Nunn directs a triple bill at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre (Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune) with a cast that includes Niall Buggy, Lisa Dwan, James Hayes and David Threlfall, while over at the Old Vic Alan Cumming, Daniel Radcliffe and Jane Horrocks star in Endgame.

February’s offerings include David Mitchell making his West End debut in Ben Elton’s Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow at the Gielgud Theatre. I’m also intrigued by Hampstead Theatre’s The Haystack, a thriller by Al Blyth about GCHQ and surveillance.

Those who like their thrillers with a supernatural edge might want to check out The House on Cold Hill, starring Debbie McGee, at The Mill at Sonning in April.

On the National Theatre’s programme I like the look of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, starring Maxine Peake and Ria Zmitrowicz (opening this month). In April, Thea Sharrock directs  Jack Absolute Flies Again, a new play by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. And in August Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Talking of unmissable Shakespeare, Cush Jumbo takes on Hamlet at the Young Vic in July.

Further afield, my theatrical sweet tooth is tempted by Quality Street, Northern Broadsides’ revival of JM Barrie’s farce by  which opens in February in Halifax’s Viaduct Theatre and then tours. Barrie’s play was so popular at the time that it gave the chocolates their name.

And there I was trying to give up chocolate this month…

If you missed Laura Wade’s The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2019, be sure to catch it at the Harold Pinter Theatre where it opens in May. This genius trip into the Jane Austen universe owes a lot to Pirandello, as does the title of this play at the Southwark Playhouse in April: Five Characters in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep.

Finally, to the Royal Court for a play (in June) which has quite possibly best title of the year: Purple Snowflakes and Titty Wanks.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Hansard review – National Theatre (Lyttelton)

While Boris Johnson was facing a crucial vote in parliament on Tuesday night, the National Theatre was staging a political drama every bit as gripping.

Simon Woods’ debut play unfolds in real time in the spacious Oxfordshire home of Conservative MP Robin Hesketh and his wife Diana on a specific Saturday in May 1988.

Robin (Alex Jennings) arrives home after a week away on parliamentary business to find his beloved lawn ravaged by foxes and Diana (Lindsay Duncan) in her dressing gown and in a combative mood.

What initially appears to be loving banter between the couple turns into a sustained bout of verbal jousting fuelled by Diana’s suspicions that her husband is having an affair and her fierce opposition to his support for the Thatcher government’s introduction of the anti-gay law Section 28.

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Lindsay Duncan as Diana Hesketh in Hansard (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

Although set during the late 80s (there are references to Princess Diana, Aids and the lesbians who invaded the BBC Six O’Clock News while it was being presented by Sue Lawley), Woods has one eye firmly fixed on contemporary times.

Diana, who mockingly describes herself as a “frightful left wing woman”, often sounds like she’s just stepped out of a Tardis from 2019. At one point she even makes a barbed allusion to “man-splaining”. During another exchange, Robin utters the line: “In 20 years’ time you won’t be allowed to be a white heterosexual male.”

They make an unlikely and often unlikable couple. There are times when you do wonder how they have ended up staying together. The reasons become more clear in the play’s final minutes. What started out as a wordy, witty comedy drama turns into something very different.

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Alex Jennings as Robin Hesketh in Hansard (photo by Catherine Ashmore)

As the only two on stage, Duncan and Jennings give awards-worthy performances. Director Simon Godwin ensures there is never a static moment during the political and personal dog-fighting. The ending, when a deeper layer of meaning behind the play’s title is revealed, is beautifully handled.

All eyes might be on the House of Commons these days, but here’s a fascinating drama just across the river that’s keen to win your vote.

Hansard is at the Lyttelton Theatre until 25 November and will be broadcast live into over 700 UK cinemas on 7 November

Anna review – National Theatre (Dorfman)

As fans of Dark Side of the Moon will attest, some things seem made to be listened to through headphones.

So it is with Ella Hickson’s new play at the National’s intimate Dorfman Theatre.

Visitors arrive to find a pair of Sennheisers draped across the backrest. A soft, yet firm, recorded voice encourages you to put them on the right way round.

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ANNA at the Dorfman Theatre (Photo: Johan Persson)

The stage itself is separated from the audience by a giant sheet of glass, so before the play starts you can enjoy the reflection of yourself looking like a nightclub DJ.

Why the headphones? Well, what makes Anna so unique is its sound design by Ben and Max Ringham.

Tiny sonic moments usually lost on a theatre audience – the flick of a light switch, the strike of a match, an intimate kiss – are delivered to your ears in stunning detail wherever you are seated.

Phoebe Fox gives a brilliantly intense performance as Anna Weber, a woman who lives with her husband Hans (Paul Bazely) in a flat in 1968 East Berlin. Max Bennett is superbly chilling as Christian Neumann, Hans’s new boss.

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Max Bennett as Christian Neumann (Photo: Johan Persson)

“Why is everyone having conversations that no-one is allowed to hear?” Anna asks in a paranoid moment during a party to celebrate Hans’s recent promotion.

That line sums up the brilliance of this play. Everything is heard from the perspective of its titular character, meaning that much of the conversation elsewhere in the flat becomes muted or out of earshot.

Conversely, whispered asides to Anna – and whatever she does behind the privacy of her bedroom door – are heard with astonishing clarity.

The result is an unnerving Cold War thriller for the ears. That said, this is no radio play. Director Natalie Abrahami expertly ensures that the dimly-lit visuals also feed the growing sense of paranoia.

This is an immersive hour of theatre that often had me not daring to breathe. Like Pink Floyd’s classic LP, I’d happily have this on repeat.

Anna is at the Dorfman Theatre until 15 June

Tartuffe – National Theatre (Lyttelton)

In one corner of the opulent set for this new version of Tartuffe stands a giant golden replica of Michelangelo’s David draped in a pink boa. At one point the statue is turned 180 degrees so that David’s magnificent gilded backside faces the audience in what I suspect is the theatrical equivalent of a cheeky wink.

This is just one of the many comic delights scattered throughout John Donnelly’s modern reworking of Moliere’s 17th century French farce.

Subtitled “The Imposter”, the story takes place in a mansion in contemporary Highgate where Orgon (Kevin Doyle) is having a personal crisis over his wealthy lifestyle and has invited into his home the charismatic outsider Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare). “It’s not an obsession, it’s an awakening,” Orgon tells his concerned family, who brand the strangely-dressed interloper “a zealot”.

This being a farce, it seems appropriate that when he does appear on stage – almost an hour into the play – Tartuffe isn’t wearing any trousers, just some spotty pants and a t-shirt. It’s a great pay-off after a long build up. O’Hare’s slippery character has beads and a top-knot and speaks with a European accent that’s hard to pin down. It’s a magnetic performance, which begins even before the play starts with O’Hare flinging daffodils to audience members while they are still silencing their phones.

The whole cast is uniformly excellent. As Orgon, Doyle at times seems to be channelling Basil Fawlty. Olivia Williams, as his wife Elmire, is superb in the slapstick seduction scene where she attempts to expose Tartuffe’s lechery, as is Geoffrey Lumb as the ridiculous street poet Valere (“You know I don’t do ones that rhyme!”)

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

I also enjoyed Enyi Okoronkwo and Kitty Archer as Orgon’s privileged offspring Damis and Mariane, while Kathy Kiera Clarke has some of the best lines as housekeeper Dorine. “Killing yourself is no laughing matter,” she deadpans. “There are downsides.”

Under Blanche McIntyre’s direction, this modern take on Moliere’s classic moves at a great pace and is the funniest play I’ve seen in a long time, all of which goes to make the serious message that Tartuffe delivers in his closing address to the audience all the more powerful.

Tartuffe is at the National Theatre in London until 30 April

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other – National Theatre (Dorfman)

It made a lot of headlines, but what it was that caused an audience member to “faint” during a preview of Martin Crimp’s new play at the National is hard to fathom.

True, there’s plenty of weird sado-masochism on display in the double garage where the story unfolds, but it’s no worse than anything you might stumble across on Netflix.

Maybe it was the sight of Cate Blanchett dressed as a maid squirting the Audi parked on the stage with shaving foam. Surely some contravention of motoring etiquette.

Blanchett is, of course, the reason that tickets for this sold-out show were allotted by ballot. She’s the reason that the queue for day tickets starts at about 3am in sub-zero temperatures (it’s true, I know someone who did it).

She and Stephen Dillane play a couple who – along with some invited friends – act out an S&M fantasy based upon Samuel Richardson’s 18th Century novel Pamela.

The sexual power shifts constantly between the two, both of whom are in stockings and suspenders. Genders, clothes, wigs and bodily fluids are swapped. Blood is spilt.

The intimate Dorfman Theatre is perfect for this kind of stuff. Under Katie Mitchell’s direction, it’s thrilling to see Blanchett and Dillane giving it their all up close. Jessica Gunning is excellent too in the Mrs Jewkes housekeeper role.

But the sexual power play just goes on and on. It feels like a 10 minute drama workshop stretched out to two hours.

I was desperately hoping for the garage sex games to be interrupted by a neighbour coming round to borrow a ladder.

And I don’t mean one in Dillane’s stockings.

The Tell-Tale Heart – National Theatre (Dorfman)

Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, this new play written and directed by Anthony Neilson offers plenty of Christmas-time chills.

It’s hard to describe the story in much detail without giving spoilers. In brief, a playwright (Tamara Lawrence) rents an attic room in Brighton to work on her next play and forms a relationship with her landlady (Imogen Doel), who wears an eye mask for reasons she doesn’t like to discuss.

Fans of the original Poe tale (printed in the programme) will know it doesn’t end well.

Lawrence and Doel admirably handle the multi-layered plot’s blend of comedy and horror without tipping it into farce. And I very much enjoyed the dual nature of David Carlyle’s detective.

It does go a bit Twilight Zone at times, but there are genuine shocks and scares to be had here, not least from the ingenious lighting and set design. The playwright’s typewriter is a particular delight.

After this you’ll never look at eyes – or eggs – in the same way.

 

I’m Not Running – National Theatre (Lyttelton)

And so to another drama at the National Theatre about politics and rocky relationships (see previous review), except this one is firmly set in contemporary Britain.

David Hare’s I’m Not Running focuses on Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke), a doctor whose campaign to save a hospital leads to a career in politics and her decision on whether or not to run for the leadership of the Labour Party.

The play begins with an amusing exchange between Gibson’s campaign manager Sandy (played by the always excellent Joshua McGuire) and a pack of political hacks at a press conference. No, he won’t be answering any questions, he says, before proceeding to do just the opposite.

The play moves backwards and forwards over some 20 years to examine Gibson’s life, her motivations and her complicated relationship with university ex Jack Gould (Alex Hassell), a Labour Party stalwart.

Sensibly, Hare places all of these political shenanigans in an alternate reality. There’s no mention of Brexit or Corbyn (though perhaps it’s no coincidence that the hospital that Gibson saves is Corby).

But for all its clever one liners, and an impressive revolving set with giant talking head projections, I’m Not Running is hard to connect with over its two hours and 40 minutes. There’s a genuinely affecting scene between a young version of Gibson and her alcoholic mother, but by the time the play reached its predictable final line I was glad to be running for the last train.