27 May 2011

Cause Celebre - Old Vic, Thursday 26th May 2011


Cause Célèbre is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury who went on trial with her 18-year-old lover for the murder of her husband. Condemned by the public more for her seduction of a young boy than for any involvement she may have had in her husband's death, Alma's fate is left in the hands of the socially and sexually repressed jury forewoman, Edith.
Alma Rattenbury: Anne-Marie Duff
Edith Davenport - Niamh Cusack
Stella Morrison - Lucy Robinson
John Davenport - Simon Chandler
George Wood - Tommy McDowell
Irene Riggs - Jenny Galloway
Francis Rattenbury - Timothy Carlton
O'Connor - Nicholas Jones

Creative Team
Written by Terence Rattigan
Director - Thea Sharrock
Designer -Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting- Bruno Poet
Music -Adrian Johnston
Sound - Ian Dickinson

This, I think, is going to be one of those occasions when I find it difficult to separate my feelings about a play from my feelings about a production of it. Cause Celebre was never going to be a great play, adapted as it was (with considerable difficulty, apparently) by Rattigan from his own radio play of the same name. This has left the play with a terribly static format, a feeling which must have been even more pronounced during the 1970s when it was first produced. It was the time of Angry Young Kitchen Sinks Looking Back In Anger (towards the refrigerator perhaps). Set in the mid-30s, it must have seemed very old-fashioned even then, but nearly 40 years on, it seems even more so – “period”, even. It seems to have acquired a patina of dust, which you can almost smell in this slightly cheap-looking production. There’s a feeling of sub-Agatha-Christie-Witness-For-The-Prosecution-offseason-Repertory-Company about the whole thing, both play and production. Some plays really don’t age well, and Cause Celebre is starting to lose its hair and develop liver spots. So we are faced with a play originally written for radio but adapted for the stage, first produced in the 1970s but set in the 30’s – the prognosis isn’t great. The fact that this has obviously been hauled out of the cupboard on the back of the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of After the Dance in an attempt to cash in on the Rattigan Centenary isn’t going to invite favourable comparisons, although both are directed by the same Director. You’d never know – this is not Thea Sharrock’s finest hour. The dialogue itself also seems strangely at odds with the 30s setting, almost as if Rattigan was trying to prove that he could be “contemporary” but failing miserably, and ending up with a chimera – neither fish nor fowl.

The production is also hampered by being, I think, the wrong play in the wrong venue. The Old Vic’s is way too large for a drama that seems to call out for an intimate “in your face” setting – perhaps somewhere like the Almeida or the Donmar, so that the audience feel that they are eavesdropping on private conversations or sitting in the public gallery of Court No. 1.  It is, after all, about a secret affair which leads to domestic murder, and several scenes take place in the claustrophobic setting of a courtroom at the Old Bailey. The few bits and pieces of furniture seem completely adrift on the cavernous stage, and the fact that the proscenium is surrounded by gingerbread gilding makes the play itself seem like a relic from a bygone age. In a tighter, more modern setting it would have considerably more impact. The Old Vic’s enormous auditorium is a double whammy; in their efforts to project to the back row of the upper circle, most of the cast fall into the trap of projecting to The Cut, Westminster Bridge Road, the Thames Path and all points north. What is essentially domestic dialogue gains nothing by being shouted. The difficulties in reaching the audience don’t stop with dialogue but continue into physical gestures – at least two characters seemed to be portraying manic windmills last night. Sure, when you’re having histrionics its ok to flail your arms about, but talking to your son about when and where he caught something nasty from a cheap prossie doesn’t need to be delivered at concert pitch – what would the neighbours think? Pas devant les enfants et les domestices, sil vous plait!

All the shouting, mugging and arm waving tip some characters over the fine line into caricature, of which Nicholas Jones as Rattenbury's legal counsel, O'Connor, is particularly guilty, m'lud.  This is a role which requires gravitas, that almost indefinable quality of knowing seriousness which finer actors like Leo McKern or, back in this mists of time, Charles Laughton would have delivered in spades.  Jones plays the role as an avuncular, red-faced type (and is particularly guilty of windmill impressions), when the role would benefit immensely from being stiller and more dangerously focussed, throwing his jolly out-of-court persona into shaper relief.  Lucy Robinson as Stella is hampered by her sterotypical character and dialogue, and makes it all a bit too fruity-Tunbridge-Wells.  Tristram Wymark, understuding the role of the Judge, lacked the stage experience to position himself fully in the spotlight during the court scenes, so we were faced with an apparently headless Judge ironically poised to deliver the death sentence.  Anne-Marie Duff rather overdoes the Vamp in her earlier scenes in an attempt to project the character over the footlights, but does the histrionics and court scenes brilliantly, while Niamh Cusack seems to be channelling Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.  Absolutely everyone is upstaged by Jenny Galloway who turns a tiny, practically invisble part into Mrs Danvers.  Galloway seems to be cornering the market in tiny, practically invisible parts - she played a very similar role in After The Dance - and deserves more exposure.

I can't get away from the feeling that a slightly less cheap-looking production, in a more appropriate venue, would have done Cause Celebre rather more favours than it is currently getting at the Old Vic. 

What the critics thought:





23 May 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors - National Theatre, Wednesday 18th May 2011


Fired from his skiffle band, Francis Henshall becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe, a small time East End hood, now in Brighton to collect £6,000 from his fiancee’s dad. But Roscoe is really his sister Rachel posing as her own dead brother, who’s been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers.

Holed up at The Cricketers’ Arms, the permanently ravenous Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a second job with one Stanley Stubbers, who is hiding from the police and waiting to be re-united with Rachel. To prevent discovery, Francis must keep his two guvnors apart. Simple.

Gareth David - Benson
Stanley Stubbers - Oliver Chris
Francis Henshall- James Corden
Alfie- Tom Edden
Doctor- Martyn Ellis
Lloyd Boateng- Trevor Laird
Pauline Clench- Claire Lams
Charlie Clench- Fred Ridgeway
Alan - Daniel Rigby
Rachel Crabbe- Jemima Rooper
Dolly - Suzie Toase

Creative Team:
based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
Director - Nicholas Hytner
Associate Director - Cal McCrystal
Designer- Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer - Mark Henderson
Music - Grant Olding
Sound Designer - Paul Arditti
Fight Director- Kate Waters

Anyone who cares to drop by RTR on a semi-regular basis will know that I don’t “do” opera and I certainly don’t “do” farce. I certainly don’t “do” farce when a) I’m feeling horrendously poorly, b) when its hot and clammy and windy and smearing with rain outside and c) the “star” is some over-rated fat bloke from a TV “comedy” that I don’t find remotely funny. So, Dear Readers, if you are a fan of farce or James Corden or farces with James Corden in I suggest you leave by that door over there (points) and come back next week when I’ll be reviewing a proper play by Terence Rattigan.
This play is a rewrite of a 17th century Commedia dell’arte play called A Servant for Two Masters and I therefore can’t really see how Richard Bean can be credited with being the “writer”; all he has had to do is update it and change the names, keeping the original plot and characters. I could just as easily do a complete re-write of Pride and Prejudice and update it to 1980s Croydon to give it that retro feel – “Everyone knows that a single geezer with a big wad of cash is looking for a shag” – and call myself “the writer”. The characters and plot of Prada and Pre-Juice, having already been laboured over and fleshed out for me by Ms. Austen I simply need to turn into Liz Bennett and Fizz Willy Darcy and commissions to stage it at the National will come rolling in. So One Man Two Guvnors isn’t a new play in any sense of the word; merely a very old play with a veneer of modernity slapped onto it and pasted over with a Pritt Stick. It was, however, clever to have set the rewrite in Brighton – so many of these late 17th and early 18th century “comedies” seem to be set there that I’m constantly surprised the streets weren’t full of little men in silly wigs carrying quill pens and notebooks scribbling away about artful maidservants, caddish roués and cuckolded husbands. Not that your average member of the audience at this performance would have known that – such is the apparent pull of Mr. Corden to those deprived of their weekly helping of Gavin and Stacey that the place was packed out. It got less packed out during the course of the first half – I counted 8 people leaving before the interval – and it was considerably less packed after the interval bell went. Presumably people couldn’t stand the braying or “whoooooo”ing which occurred every time Mr. Corden came on. The girl sitting in the seat behind me not only had her feet up on the back of my seat but felt compelled to shout out advice to the characters at every opportunity (poor girl obviously didn’t realise that she wasn’t at home watching TV) but practically had an orgasm when Mr. Corden gave us those immortal lines “What’s occurring?” – which I gather is a catchphrase in his vastly overrated “comedy series” – together with his trademark “mug” to the audience. I found his performance completely one-note and without any particular subtlety; his complete lack of stage technique meant that even the standard lamp gave a more measured performance. Part of this is admittedly the fault of the play – I found the dining room scene more than reminiscent of the worst excesses of Fawlty Towers or the wallpapering scene in many a panto (that cost me a lot – I am a big fan of both FT and panto, although I will draw the line at Brian Blessed playing Captain Hook, Abanazer or, indeed, anything else).
Overall, I thought the comedy elements, both visual and verbal, were badly over-egged. It was too broad, too much and too often – once is funny, twice is mildly amusing, thrice is dull and four times is just tedious. I could have done with a lot less of Corden’s incessant mugging, and certainly something other than his “Little Fat Man of the People” schtick over and over and over again. Can the man not play any character other than James Corden?
There were a couple of stand-out performances. Oliver Chris was excellent (I’ve seen his Bottom, you know), as was recent BAFTA recipient Daniel Rigby as the posturing actor Alan, all black leather jacket and “method acting”. Suzie Toaze was very good in a small, somewhat thankless role and her speech foretelling a female occupant of 10 Downing Street gave me practically the only laugh of the entire evening. Loved the scenery, which was very evocative of shabby-genteel Brighton (although not as much as the two women to my right who cooed “Innit Luvley?” all the way through the pier scene). I also enjoyed the performance by the on-stage band, although wished they hadn’t been lumbered with the name “The Craze” (geddit??) which is about as subtle as a knuckleduster in the ribs.
Anyway, if you do decide to go and see this, don’t be fooled into thinking Mr. Corden can play the xylophone because he’s actually miming. The rest of the cast, with one other notable exception, are actually playing instruments or demonstrating their singing talents. Mug up on the plot before you go because, once again, there is no synopsis in the programme. Take earplugs in case you are sitting anywhere in the vicinity of a gaggle of late teenage girls who like Gavin and Stacey and who have come to get their fix. Don’t ask yourself why a 1960’s front parlour has a portrait of the Queen which was painted in 1926 on the wall. Leave at the interval if you can or beforehand if possible.

What the critics thought:
I saw a preview performance, pro crits will be linked as and when they appear.

Mr. Corden gets it in the neck from someone who can actually act  and  who has a Knighthood to prove it.


19 May 2011

Bette and Joan - Arts Theatre, Tuesday 17th May 2011


Both at low points in their previously stellar careers, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford accept parts in a low-budget "schlock-horror" film called Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  In their backstage dressing room between takes, Davis and Crawford trade insults and memories of their days as Hollywood A-list stars.  Of course, what they don't yet know is that the film will propel them both back into the limelight......

Bette Davis: Greta Scacchi
Joan Crawford: Anita Dobson

Creative Team:
Writer: Anton Burge
Director: Bill Alexander

“Blaaa-anche! I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!”

It’s a rite of passage. Watching Joan Crawford and Bette Davies slinging insults at each other in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and then slinging quotes from it around in the pub with your mates. What never fails to surprise me about WHTBJ is that both Crawford and Davies were really on their uppers, financially and professionally, when the film was made in 1962. Neither expected it to be an enormous, camp gothic hit which would propel both of them back into the limelight and restore their professional status and their bank balances. One wonders whether the irony of this has occurred to Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi – what we have here are two – lets be frank – slightly faded actresses playing two slightly faded actresses. Bette and Joan, however, isn’t really going to set their professional worlds alight again, for all that this is an enjoyable, high-camp evening at the Arts Theatre, who seem to specialise in faded stars doing high-camp evenings.

It’s an interesting piece, full of flaws. There are far too many “asides to the audience” moments for the evening to feel completely comfortable; my Him Indoors For The Evening said that it was, at times, like listening to someone reading all the good bits aloud from the book “The Divine Feud”, at the expense of the two actresses actually engaging with each other in dialogue. When there is dialogue, its patchy and uneven, and the play fails to catch fire until after the interval. Its only then that the true pain of Davis’ situation and the major flaws in Crawford’s character are revealed (OK, lets face it, the woman was an out and out lunatic). But because the second act also contains the most physical action and the most laughs, it feels as if rather too much has been crammed into too short a length of time. Act one, by contrast, feels slow and static; the play is distinctly off-balance.

The small stage of the Arts Theatre makes the direction cramped and slightly clunky; Dobson has to contend with a wheelchair, a canvas backed “director’s chair” and a make up stool cluttering up her half of the stage; I’m sure that the wheelchair, at least, could have been off-stage for most of the evening and simply wheeled on when necessary. The rather literal set, with a dressing room occupying each half of the stage, could have been somewhat more inventive – perhaps designed on the diagonal.

Both actresses try their darndest to capture the accents and speech rhythms of their character, but neither is truly successful, both slipping and sliding away from vocal accuracy. What is scary, however, is the physical resemblance that both acheive; when Scacchi finally pulls on her pale blond wig, she IS Baby Jane Hudson.

Bette and Joan is never going to set the world alight. It is what it is – and that’s all it is. There’s little psychological depth and far too much deadpan reminiscing dressed up as dialogue. But it’s a fun show for all its flaws and missed opportunities; great for a camp evening out with your buddies and just the thing to send you back to the original film with a shiver of gothic delight. 
What the critics thought:



02 May 2011

Cowardy Custard - Greenwich Theatre, Saturday 30th April 2011


Review with song and scenes from Coward's plays, presented in a vaguely autobiographical manner. 

Dillie Keane
Kit Hesketh-Harvey
Richard Sisson (aka The Widow)
Stuart Neal
Savannah Stevenson

Review can be a horribly self-indulgent art form.  Noel Coward can also be horribly self-indulgent in the wrong hands.  However, when its presented simply by performers who know exactly what they are doing, it can be joyous.  I admit that I approached the evening with slight trepidation, and that it took about 3/4 of the first half before I thawed completely towards this show.  Partly that was the fault of the show itself - Cowardy Custard is (very) loosely based on Coward's life and all the songs and excerpts from his plays are presented without any frame of reference - you're supposed to roll up at the theatre and be a devotee of The Master, knowing exactly where the quotes come from and what context they are made in.  This makes the first hour or so quite heavy going as all the Coward Buffs sit there chortling at the arch cleverness leaving you feeling uneducated.  You're not helped by the fact that the first "scene" is a lift from Coward's Shadow Play, which has some very arch dialogue and which is, as far as I could tell, a far-from-realistic piece.  The fact that you don't recognise any of the dialogue (Shadow Play is no Hay Fever or Private Lives) or indeed any of the tunes, leaves you sitting there wondering what exactly you are listening to - is it a scene from a play or just rather over-one's-head dialogue inserted into the beginning of the review? 

Its not until Mad About The Boy that things start to settle down for the non-Coward buff - at last a recognisable tune!  and OMG, its funny.  What's more, apparently it was originally written to be funny; its sung by four performers and it gets progressively funnier and off-beat.  Its followed by The Stately Homes of England - and suddenly the evening catches fire and you find you're enjoying yourself after all.  Cue I've Been to a Marvellous Party and Mrs. Worthington and you're suddenly hitting all the big Coward choonz and laughing fit to bust. 

What makes this all the more enjoyable is that you're in the company of Kit and The Widow, sublime raconteurs both, and the inestimable, glorious Dillie Kean (of Fascinating Aida).  They're accompanied by two relatively little-known performers who seem to be coming up hot on the rails and give the more established names no quarter - Savannah Stevenson is a pretty, willowy soprano with a very polished style and Stuart Neal dances like a dream but can also act up a storm, has great comedy timing, sings extremely well and (dammit) even has gorgeous dancer's thighs.  There's no Director given a credit in the programme, so its possible that this is self-directed by the cast, in which case they're so talented it makes me want to be sick.  [news received on 3rd May - the Director is Paul Foster and very good at his job he is too]

Because you've had such a good second half to the first half (if you follow me), you can forgive the fact that once again, the second half takes a while to throw a familiar tune at you.  It opens with London Pride (which I knew) and which was given a very contemporary, slightly chilling feel as its intercut with news voiceovers reporting the London 7/7 tube and bus bombings.  Another 40 minutes perhaps go by before we're treated to Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?, cleverly followed by a haunting version of Matelot.  Despite the fact that I'd never heard Nina before, it doesn't stop it being a complete showstopper, and then its time for Mad Dogs and Englishman and a short medley before the end. 

The entire evening belonged to Dillie Kean.  If you've never seen her as part of Fascinating Aida then you really have missed out on one of life's big treats.  Of slightly uncertain middle years (and, it must be said, wearing frocks with slightly uncertain hemlines and of more-than-slightly unflattering cut), Ms Keane has the type of talent that cannot be taught.  She's a natural.  She only has to totter onto the stage, pull an expression on a face which can only honestly be described as "comfortable" and the vast majority of people fall about.  Combine that with the deadpan delivery of razor-sharp observational humour and, as happened with I've Been to a Marvellous Party, you can bring to the show to a complete halt and have the audience braying for an encore. I would describe her talent as similar to that of the late, great Joyce Grenfell, who could stand alone on a stage delivering a monologue and make it seem filled with people at a party or in a supermarket queue or at an airport.  I did wish that her head-mike hadnt been plonked right in the middle of her forehead and covered up with a piece of flesh-coloured tape as it did rather look like she'd had one too many glasses of sherry and had a bit of an accident on the steps.  Keane also reminds me of Sandi Toksvig - they both have that same throwaway delivery which leaves you crying with laughter; at one point, The Widow mopped Keane's forehead and she adlibbed "Don't do that to my microphone, dear" just like a favourite, slightly dotty aunt. Fabulous.  And when the horn fell off the gramophone - well, she nearly stopped the show again.  I don't think anyone corpses quite so hysterically as Dillie Keane.

I did rather wish that costumes had been just that little bit smarter; Dillie's dresses could have been rather better chosen, Ms. Stevenson's second half dress was very raggy around the hem and Mr. Neal looked rather like he had been pulled from a hedge about 10 minutes before curtain up - shirt not pressed, shoes very down at heel and unpolished, jacket just awful, unshaven and bleary-looking.  Widow was resplendent in a very smart suit and you could have used his shoes as a mirror, and Mr. Hesketh-Harvey has a very soignee style, making the others look ever so slightly shabby in comparison.  I know that touring can be tough on clothes, and that there wasn't a costume assistant credited in the programme but when the subject of your show is Coward, you do really have to look the part, and sadly the majority of the cast didn't.

Having said that, I left the theatre in a far, far better mood than I was when I went in, which is what theatre is for - or should be.  We caught this on the last night of the Greenwich run, but its touring until the first week in June so there's still time for you to catch this little gem of a review.  In different hands I suspect, however, that it might not be nearly so much good fun.

What the reviewers said: