28 February 2008

Major Barbara - National Theatre, Wednesday 27th February 2008


LadyUndershaft is discussing with her son, Stephen, some permanent source of income for her grown daughters - Sarah, who is engaged to Charles Lomax, and Barbara (a Major in the Salvation Army), who is engaged to Adolphus Cusins. She comes to the conclusion that the only solution to the problem is to take monetary help from her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, who has made millions of pounds from his munitions factory. According to tradition, the heir to the Undershaft fortune must be an orphan who can be groomed to run the factory. Undershaft himself had been a poor young man; he improved himself by working hard, and wants to give another young man the same kind of opportunity. Lady Undershaft has managed to raise the children by herself. Stephen, Sarah, and Barbara are reintroduced to their father.

A deal is made between Barbara and Undershaft to visit each other's place of work. He meets Barbara at her shelter the following morning, and is impressed with her abilities as she handles various people with patience, firmness, and sincerity. Undershaft decides that if anyone in his family is capable of managing his business, it is his idealistic and committed daughter.

Undershaft brings Barbara back to reality by revealing the darker side of The Salvation Army when he gives a sizable donation, which she wants to refuse because the source was weaponry; however, it is eagerly accepted by the officer in charge of the shelter. Disillusioned, Major Barbara leaves the shelter in tears. She visits the factory with her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, also a member of The Salvation Army and a
professor of Greek, who joined The Salvation Army only because he was in love with Barbara. He is soon made the heir and head of the Undershaft Munitions Foundry, because he is - technically - a foundling; his father having married his dead wife's sister (which is not recognised legally as a marriage).

Barbara intends to resign from the Salvation Army having seen what she views as their hypocrisy but changes her mind and tells Cusins that she will die a salvationist After she marries him, she plans for them to live in the countryside near the munitions factory, where she will continue her work and bring her message of salvation to the factory workers instead of just to people who are poor and starving.

Simon Russell Beale, Simon Russell Beale..... all I ever see these days at the theatre is Simon Russell Bloody Beale...

By Gum, Shaw was a provocative little bugger, canny old Socialist that he was. This play is basically on the theme that "good things can come from Capitalism" and that "tainted money is as good as pure when you really need it" and, surprisingly, having seen this play, I find myself in agreement with him - especially after thinking it would end with Barbara's complete disillusionment with her beloved cause and her beloved fiance, only to find that it actually ends with her realisation that she can use both fiance and the "dirty money" in pursuance of her own ideals.

This was a reasonably "trad" production, with the Undershaft family home nicely contrasting with the run-down grubbiness of the Salvation Army centre. There was, however, to my mind just that little bit too much Edwardian clutter on stage in the first scene, and some of the plants were very badly placed, almost crowding out the Grandfather clock. The centre, conversely, was extremely grim, although the many hanging lampshades did look rather too modern for the period. Perhaps the National were reusing some of them from the awful "Women of Troy" from last year. The Munitions Factory was stark and sleek, although I wasnt really that keen on the rows and rows and rows of bombs everywhere, all being polished by silent, careworn factory workers - their presence really rather distracted from the main action.

There is just that little bit too much of coincidence towards the end to make a really satisfactory conclusion to the story - the realisation that Cusins is technically an orphan and therefore able to inherit the factory from Undershaft is just that little bit too neat. And, while I think about it, being a child of parents whose marriage is not recognised by law does not make you an orphan, it makes you a bastard. I can't quite remember if Cusins reports that his parents are actually dead - perhaps he's an orphaned bastard? Anyway, it does still rather smack of Shaw having written himself into a slightly tight corner and using coincidence to get out of it, and its soooooo obvious at one point that this is how the plot is going to be unravelled that even I spotted it coming a long while off. The end, where Barbara decides to take her message to well fed, happy well-housed and employed factory workers rather than to the underclasses of society struggling to make ends meet (and who are therefore presumably considerably more in need of the few comforts that religon and a hot meal can bring) leaves a slightly bitter taste which seems to debase Shaw's socialist tenets.

Performances were, on the whole, very good and assured (though this was only a preview performance) - even from the despised Mr. Russell Beale, who seems to have managed to reign in his propensity to spit all over people whilst speaking. There was considerably less of the slightly hysterical flapping about that he is prone to as well. Hayley Attwell made a fine Barbara, although seemed somehow more convincing in her uniform than her civvies. "Clothes makest man" says the Bible (or was it Shakespeare?) and she was all blood and fire in the former, and rather like a damp marshmallow in the latter. It must be a difficult part to play. Him Indoors raved about Clare Higgins (Lady Undershaft) but I personally found a lot of her dialogue very difficult to hear unless she was actually facing in my direction, as opposed to SRB who could probably have been heard in the wings, the flies and the street outside. Jessica Gunning was strangely cast as Sarah Undershaft, looking rather like one of her father's airships(bustles and ruffles do not sit well on the short and, let us be frank, dumpy). In fact, because of this, it was a) hard to see her as part of the family, who were for the most part tall and elegantly spare and b) even harder to see why Tom Anderson's Charles Lomax was so desperately in love with her. Lomax is a standard "Silly Upper Class Ass" part and Anderson did all that was necessary for the role rather than all that was possible.

Of the smaller roles, Maggie McCarthy was a wonderful Mrs. Baines - all doughy faced but fervant and muscular Christianity, and Ian Burfield was delectably rough and ready as Bill Walker.

All in all an interesting, thought provoking production, raising all sorts of questions about sponsorship and donations, both to the Salvation Army and to "the arts" themselves. The place was packed out even though this was a preview showing, as CBB said at one point, that there is obviously a very large audience for "classic" plays which endure in their relevance and appeal over emphemerally fashionable "here today and gone tomorrow" new works. After a good evening out like this, I am inclined to agree.

25 February 2008

Shadowlands – Novello Theatre, Tuesday 12th February 2008


The story follows C. S. Lewis, a crusty Oxford Don, confirmed bachelor and writer of the famous Narnia books. he meets an American fan, Joy Gresham, whom he befriends and eventually marries, initially so that she can remain in England, but then finds that he truly loves here. The story deals with his struggle with personal pain and grief: Lewis preaches that one should endure suffering with patience, but finds that the simple answers he had preached no longer apply when Joy becomes afflicted with cancer and eventually dies.

I’m writing this review a good two weeks after having seen this show – a combination of work pressure and the PC at home giving huge amounts of trouble! I’m having to rely on my rather bad memory as a result, so apologies to all my readers.

To all intents and purposes, it didn’t sound like a great night out – watching a fusty old Don fall in love with a woman who then dies of cancer. But such is the power of the play – and indeed the power of love itself – that it actually turned into quite a life-affirming evening. Both Charles Dance (Lewis) and Janie Dee (Joy), gave incredibly real and moving performances, to the extent that sometimes it was actually quite painful to watch them enjoying their brief golden afternoon of happiness before Joy discovers that she has terminal cancer. Simply and movingly told, with just the right amount of stage setting - walls of books which rose and fell to represent Lewis’ college rooms, his home, a teashop, a Registry office, a hospital ward….proving that stage magic doesn’t need to be all singing, all dancing in order to convince. At two points in the play, the walls lift to reveal the doors of the famous Wardrobe, which open, allowing us to see into the world beyond – firstly a winter landscape with silver birch trees against a dark sky, with snow falling gently, and secondly the sun-drenched orchard which appears in The Magician’s Nephew. In the book, Digory picks an apple from a tree and takes it home to his dying mother, who is cured of her illness. He saves a seed and plants it and, many years later, when the resulting tree is blown over in a gale, uses the wood to make the Wardrobe through which the four Pevensie children enter in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This story is agonisingly mirrored in the play when Douglas, Joy’s young son, enters the orchard himself but finds that the magic doesn’t work in real life. Not having seen a script of the play (or indeed the film it was based on), neither of us knew whether these scenes are actually in the script or whether they were just a directorial “add in” – but by golly they worked well.

In the penultimate scene, as Joy dies in Lewis’s arms, there was one of those incredible, deep silences that you get in the theatre sometimes when the audience is so rapt (and wrapped up) with the performance that all the twitching, coughing, shuffling of programmes and blowing of noses just stops, and you can almost hear people concentrating on the action on stage. It’s almost as if peoples’ senses of sight and hearing are suddenly turned up several pitches to levels that we rarely use, and you find yourself holding your breath so as not to disturb your reception. It rarely happens, and when it does, it’s electric.

Superlatives fail me really when attempting to describe Dance’s portrayal of C. S. Lewis as a Don so crusty that you could almost see the cobwebs obscuring the windows of his mind, only to have them scattered by the fresh breeze of Janie Dee’s wonderful (and aptly named) Joy. Her New York accent, maintained scrupulously throughout the performance, was spot on. Her depiction of Joy’s courage in the face of excruciating pain was a triumph – so real that I occasionally found it difficult to bear. Richard Durden was also superb as Lewis’s fusty, crusty bachelor brother, underplaying the role nicely with superbly bumbling humour, and there was some fine support from the rest of the cast – although I do wonder about the accuracy of having the wedding ceremony carried out by a female Registrar. I don’t think Oxford was that far ahead of its time in the 1950s.

For only the second time this year, I stood to give my applause at the end (although didn’t fall over this time). What was surprising, given the audience reaction (to the play, not to my standing up!) was that I was the only person who did so.

07 February 2008

Ring Around the Moon - Playhouse Theatre, Tuesday 5th February 2008

Synopsis (take a deep breath and make yourself a coffee – this is long and complicated!):

Ring Around the Moon opens with the aristocratic Hugo, talking with Joshua, his butler, about Hugo’s brother, Frederic, who has been sleeping outside his fiancee’s bedroom window while she is a guest at the family’s estate. Frederic and Hugo are identical twins, but Hugo is good with women and Frederic inept. Hugo and Joshua are unhappy with Frederic’s fawning over Diana Messerschmann, his fiancee. Frederic’s love for Diana is indeed insecure. Enter Patrice Bombelles (Messerschmann’s male secretary) and Lady India (Messerschmann’s mistress and Hugo and Frederic’s cousin), who reveal their affair behind the back of the industrialist, Messerschmann. Patrice is especially worried because wealthy Messerschmann pays Patrice’s salary and “keeps” Lady India. These two are replaced by Madame Desmermortes and her nephew, Hugo, he notifying her of LadyIndia’s affair with Messerschmann. Hugo informs Madame of Frederic’s impending marriage to Diana. Madame is unhappywith Messerschmann’s and Lady India’s affair because Messerschmann is not an aristocrat. Hugo informs Romainville he has seen him doting on a young girl (Isabelle) and further, knows he has brought her to the country. Hugo threatens to expose the meeting to Madame as a lecherous affair unless Romainville agrees to invite Isabelle to the Desmermortes estate and pose as Romainville’s niece. Isabelle and her mother soon arrive, the latter dazzled by the estate and the prospect of marrying Isabelle to a rich man. Isabelle thinks she has come just to dance. When Hugo greets them, Isabelle is preoccupied by his handsomeness Madame and Joshua enter, planning the ball to be held that evening. Hugo plans to parade the beautiful Isabelle at the ball so Frederic will fall in love with
her, and out of love with Diana. Romainville rushes in to alert Hugo about a rumple in the plan: Isabelle’s mother has recognized Madame’s companion, Capulat, as her long lost friend. Romainville is worried Isabelle’s mother will betray the plan to Capulat who will in turn tell Madame, giving away Romainville’s apparently lecherous connection to Isabelle and ruining his relationship with the Desmermortes. Romainville’s suspicions are confirmed after talking with the mother who has apparently already told Capulat too much. Hugo decides to tell Capulat to keep quiet, but before he can, Madame corners Romainville and intently questions him about his family connection to the enchanting “niece,” a grilling through which Romainville barely fakes his way. The final exchange of Act I has Capulat promising Isabelle’s mother to help her win Hugo for Isabelle.

Capulat slyly gives up misguided bits of Hugo’s plot to get Madame to connect Hugo and Isabelle. Madame is mystified (aren’t we all by this point!). Patrice enters with Lady India discussing Patrice’s terrible fear that Messerschmann will discover Patrice and Lady India’s affair. This excites India who romanticizes being poor. When Messerschmann enters, Patrice and Lady India leave, wondering if Messerschmann has seen them and guessed their affair. Isabelle finally tells Frederic — immediately after Hugo has kissed her to arouse Frederic’s jealousy — that she is not, as it appears, in love with Hugo, but with him. Hugo then tells Isabelle of his plan to inflame Frederic’s love still further with another fictional lover pretending to challenge Hugo to a duel if Hugo does not cease his attentions toward Isabelle. Shots will then ring out and Isabelle, acting as if she thinks Frederic dead, will fake drowning. Hugo will then “rescue” her and carry her to Frederic. So happy will Isabelle act to see Frederic still alive, and so flattered will Frederic be that Isabelle attempted to drown herself on his account, Frederic will fall in love with her. Isabellebecomes so frustrated in her still-unstated love for Hugot that she runs off. Diana enters having seen Hugo and Isabelle togetherDiana and getting Hugo to say he loves her (Diana) but he refuses. Enter Messerschmann. Diana complains to him that she is being upstaged by Isabelle, that Isabelle is stealing the attentions of the men at the ball. Messerschmann promises his daughter he will take care of everything. Now Hugo enters threatening Patrice to expose his affair with Lady India if Patrice will not be the one to play the jealous lover and duelist in Hugo’s crazy scheme. Patrice complies. Now Capulat enters with Isabelle’s mother, richly dressed as “Countess Funela”. Romainville enters and tells Hugo he is distraught because Messerschmann has threatened to ruin Romainville financially unless Romainville gets Isabelle out of the Desmermortes house. Patrice now enters to play the jealous lover, insult Hugo, and challenge him to a duel. But Patrice is ignorant that by this time Hugo has forgotten the plan, preoccupied as he is with Romainville’s hysteria and the “Countess Funela.”

Hugo, his plans in disarray, desperately discusses a new and fantastic plan — no longer to match Isabelle with Frederic by having her fake her drowning — but to embarrass the rich guests by exposing Isabelle as a humble girl, not an upper-class debutante as he led them to believe. Isabelle, will have none of it. Diana enters and complains to Isabelle about the misfortune of wealth. Isabelle ends up fighting with Diana. When Frederic discovers them, Isabelle mistakes him for Hugo, telling him off and confessing her love. Frederic admits he is not Hugo. Diana dislikes the attention Frederic and Isabelle pay each other and says she is leaving, demanding Frederic leave with her. Isabelle, now alone and distraught, is discovered by her mother. Isabelle tells her mother the charade is finished and that they are leaving. Messerschmann enters and tries to bribe Isabelle to leave the house. She refuses his money. He cannot believe it and continues raising his offers as fast as she rejects them. Suddenly, Messerschmann becomes disillusioned about the power of money and he and Isabelle begin tearing up stacks of notes. Isabelle then attempts to drown herself for real, but Hugo rescues her. Madame persuades Isabelle to forget Hugo and has Frederic console her in order to match them. She then attempts to convince Hugo of his love for Diana. Lady India announces that Messerschmann is financially ruining himself by selling off his assets. Diana declares that since her father is poor and her marriage with Frederic finished, she will learn to be poor. Hugo advises reconciliation with Frederic. Romainville enters and announces he will propose to Isabelle, but learns Isabelle is now with Frederic. In a note from Hugo brought in by Joshua, Hugo
confesses his love for Diana because he thinks her poor. Messerschmann then confirms the news of his financial ruin. Lady India is moved and entranced by the adventure of being poor. The play ends with Messerschmann reading a telegram saying that his attempts at financial ruin were perceived as manoeuvering, and have made him richer than ever.

Phew! I hope you’re still with me – would you believe that I edited that down by about half? As you might expect from reading that, I lost the plot here very quickly (in fact, after about 5 minutes) and only began to pick it up again towards the end of Act 1. The fact that Hugo and Frederick are played by the same actor, and that Diana and Lady India look very similar in this production and in Act II wear practically identical costumes merely added to my confusion – in fact, it wasn’t until they appeared on stage together about 10 minutes before the end that I actually realised they were two different people. I think it bewildered a lot of other people too – and I think this is going to be a major stumbling block to the success of this production. People don’t like to have to think at the theatre these days, pace stuff like “We Will Rock You”, “Grease”, “Dirty Dancing” and all the other tat in the West End based on screen musicals. In fact, after about 20 minutes, I found myself just watching the performances rather than trying to concentrate on the story.

A lot of this production comes perilously close to farce – not one of my favourite art forms. It all has to take place at a considerable speed (otherwise one would be in the theatre all bloody night) and, I think, needs considerable editing to make it bearable. It still feels like a VERY long show if you’re not completely au fait with the plot, and, given the length of the synopsis above, no doubt you will be in agreement. In fact, several people left at the interval, presumably to go and wrap their aching heads in wet towels.

There were some very good performances, however. Angela Thorne (late of “To the Manor Born”) was a wonderful Madame, looking and sounding like Lady Bracknell as played by Wendy Hillier, and delivered many of her wonderful lines with a complete sense of their “throwaway” value – always good for a laugh. I shall remember the line “He’s scuttling about like a dilapidated moth” for some considerable time! However, she seemed very, very dodgy on her lines occasionally (as did some other members of the cast) – there was quite a lot of umming and ahhing throughout, as well as the odd repeated word, as if her mental autocue had paused and she was waiting for it to catch up with her train of thought. JJ Feild (pretentious name, utterly pretentious website at http://jj-feild.com/drupal/node/291) gave an astounding performance in terms of the complexity of playing twin brothers, but was far too cold and charmless to bring it off convincingly and came across as a caddish lounge lizard for the majority of the evening, and seemed rather too taken with his own high opinion of his acting skills for his own good. The pro reviews, however (when they appear, this was a preview performance) will probably call him “the next Kenneth Branagh” or something similarly inane. I didn’t take to him as either a person or an actor. Belinda Lang was utterly wonderful as Isabelle’s mother, looking and sounding like a demented parrot on acid – in fact on several occasions I wondered whether she had acquired the skill of breathing through her ears. Joanna David (who lately played Jennifer Erhle’s aunt in the film version of “Pride and Prejudice) took on the rather thankless task of Capulet with great aplomb and, I was pleased to note on several occasions, actually walked like a slightly harassed Lady Companion (demonstrations available on request). Emily Bruni was first class as Lady India, with superb, crystal cut diction and projection meaning that every shade of every word could be heard right at the back of the auditorium. For this alone she deserves several dozen Brownie Points. The scene in which she danced the tango with Patrice (Andrew Havill) while delivering her lines in time with the beat was one of the funniest and cleverest things I have seen on stage in a long time – and in fact I started the round of applause at the end of it.

Costumes were pretty and inspired by the Dior “New Look” of the early 1950s, although putting two actresses in practically identical costumes when they have a marked physical resemblance is best avoided if one’s audience (i.e. me!) is not to get completely confused. The set was OK – basic but effective. It was supposed to represent the house’s Winter Garden (i.e. conservatory), but was bare of any kind of plant or furniture and looked cold, grotty and rather damp. In fact, it got very boring to look at after a while. The fact that the door frame seemed to have come adrift at a strange angle really didn’t help. I suppose it was bare so as not to distract attention from the performances, but I for one would certainly have welcomed slightly more visual appeal.

In summary, I enjoyed this production for its individual performances (and occasionally for the individual scenes) but lost grip on the story very quickly. It felt far too long and wordy, consisted of lots of talking and not a lot of action and, by the end, I was pleased to go home. Ironically, the author’s surname (Anouilh) is pronounced exactly the same as “ennui”, which is French for “boring”. Enough said. I predict a run of less than three months. Its just not the right kind of play for London just now. Oh – and I never did find out why its called “Ring Around the Moon”.

What the critics thought: