West End theatre reviews
A selection of my theatre reviews for City AM newspaper, including Enron, Jerusalem, After the Dance, A Streetcar Named Desire and, er, Love Never Dies.
CAUSE CELEBRE, National Theatre
THE Rattenbury murder case, in which the young wife of an architect was accused, along with her 18-year-old lover, of battering her husband to death, gripped the country in 1935. Long queues formed around the Old Bailey, where Alma Rattenbury was portrayed as a corrupting seductress who led her toy boy to murder.
The playwright Terrence Rattigan realised at the time that this was great material for a play, but it took him until 1975, when he was dying from cancer, to turn it into one. Initially written as a radio play, it was converted for the stage and performed – to mixed reviews – in 1977, shortly before his death.
Its Old Vic revival follows those of Flare Path, currently at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and last year’s elegantly harrowing After the Dance (directed, as this is, by Thea Sharrock) at the National, as producers look to Rattigan’s lesser-celebrated works to mark his centenary.
Cause Celebre proves to be an interesting play, but it doesn’t rank anywhere near Rattigan’s best. Its made-for-radio origins are given away in its slow, awkward structure and while the liveliest moments are its courtroom scenes, the entertaining but drawn-out jousting of a pair of supercilious silks is really a distraction from Rattigan’s main themes.
These come from his decision to juxtapose the story of Alma and her lover George Wood with the personal tribulations of reluctant juror Edith Davenport (Niamh Cusack). The heartbreaking collapse of Edith’s family relationships, and the push-and-pull tension between her wholesome values and more life-affirming pleasures of the flesh, had salient resonances for Rattigan personally as well as with Alma’s trial. This all would have made for a fine play in itself, but the integration with the court drama is heavy-handed.
The show’s saving grace is Anne Marie Duff’s graceful, complex and highly compassionate portrayal of Alma, and Sharrock directs a fluid production. The fact that this ends up being a sometimes turgid evening is really down to Rattigan, though a dour, ill-lit set hardly helps.
JERUSALEM, Apollo Theatre
In Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a camper van-dwelling drug-dealer and Lord of Misrule in a dead-end Wiltshire village, Mark Rylance gives a performance of unforgettable brilliance. Beginning the night by doing a handstand over a trough of water before downing a raw egg in a pint of speed-laced vodka and milk – he’s got a cracking hangover – Rooster spends the next three hours spinning yarns, entertaining his rag-tag friends, fending off local authorities, and drawing us gradually into the dark heart of the green and pleasant land.
Jez Butterworth’s extraordinary play, a hit at the Royal Court last year, now transferred to Shaftesbury Avenue, initially seems a simple satirising of our pert, nostalgic notions of rural England. The day after an epic party at his ad-hoc campsite, Rooster holds court among his retinue of local layabouts, including an abattoir worker, a couple of teenage girls, and Mackenzie Crook’s likeable dimwit. It is St George’s Day and the village fete is taking place, an old tradition reduced to an annual piss-up for these rude mechanicals, and the comic banter flies thick and fast, like an earthier Alan Ayckbourn.
But Rooster, the last in a long line of Romany folk to have occupied this woodland – the impressive set is surrounded by high trees – conjures up a world of older magic. Eyes gleaming, voice puffing like dry old bellows, he regales us with magnificent stories of meeting giants near a Little Chef on the A14, being kidnapped by traffic wardens or seeing children born with body hair and teeth. Darker themes creep in – a local girl is missing, Rooster’s son is bullied because of his dad, and impending tragedy hangs in the air.
Butterworth’s play is a lament to old Albion, to the myths and wild mysticism that have been replaced by neat, kitsch ideas of a rural England for those who can afford it. Never sentimental, it’s an epic in which you end up believing that Rooster Byron really can summon up pagan gods and rain down fire and brimstone upon Wiltshire. A modern (and ancient) classic.
AFTER THE DANCE, National Theatre, Lyttleton
Terence Rattigan’s play was originally staged in 1939, and presciently suggests a world slipping towards catastrophe. It is the twilight of the Bright Young People, the decadent buffoons who partied away the inter-war years. Leading the way is David Scott-Fowler (Benedict Cumberbatch) a moneyed would-be historian in his late thirties. He lives in a vast Mayfair flat with his wife, his butler, his young cousin and secretary, and his layabout parasite of a friend John.
They get drunk at parties by night and waste their days in a haze of gossip and hangovers. Anyone leaning towards seriousness or sincerity is charged with being “a bore”. Even David and his wife Joan consider love an inconvenience, and happily dismiss it. Only when David falls for winsome 20-year-old Helen do deeply-buried emotions come bubbling to the surface, with tragic consequences.
It’s hard to sympathise with such horrid characters, though Rattigan weaves in sharp comedy to leaven their boorishness. I wonder if they didn’t already seem rather irrelevant targets in 1939 – the play lasted just 60 performances on its first staging, and has only rarely been seen since. Now they seem like ghosts.
Nevertheless, Thea Sharrock’s elegant production finds the humanity in these people, particularly in one devastating scene as Joan – a marvellous Nancy Carroll – sits in shell-shocked silence as the hideous futility of her life hits home. Adrian Scarborough gives a splendid comic turn as John, and in the lead role Cumberbatch is fiercely charismatic.
POLAR BEARS, The Donmar Warehouse
MARK Haddon won a whole heap of plaudits for his 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which looked at the issue of family break-up through the eyes of an autistic boy. In his first play, Haddon has turned his attention to another form of mental illness, bipolarity. Jodhi May plays Kay, a disturbed young woman who dreams of being an author and illustrator of children’s books, and who veers between manic highs, overwhelming lows and warm-hearted lucidity. Richard Coyle is the mild-mannered philosophy professor who falls for her, marries her, and must cope with her vertiginous swings.
The problem of how to handle mental disorder has dramatic potential, but Haddon decides to roll into it ideas about philosophy, religion, the meaning of life and goodness knows what else – I lost track – and in so doing bites off more than he or his audience can chew. Between poetic flights of fancy and meandering lectures on Nietzsche and rational thought, a Jesus figure wanders onto the stage to discuss how painful crucifixion can be and the various stages of bodily putrefaction after death. He even drags on a cadaver to illustrate. It’s all a bit much.
May is elegant, endearing and convincing in the role of Kay, and Coyle does his best to make the prof interesting and sympathetic. There is also strong support from Celia Imrie and Paul Hilton as Kay’s mother and brother, both of whom have failed to deal with her in their different ways.
But the play – staged on a stark, bare set – wanders off into philosophical black holes from which it too seldom returns. An audience member near me snored loudly through much of it, and I couldn’t blame him.
ENRON, Royal Court
Post credit crunch, the Enron collapse might seem like a disaster from another age. But in Lucy Prebble’s scintillating play the scandal is shown as the blueprint for the meltdowns that came after it. “There’s a strange thing goes on inside a bubble,” says one character. “People inside it can’t see outside, don’t believe there is an outside, and get glazed over.”
But this is more than a simple work about greed. It’s a multimedia blowout, an all-singing, all-dancing look into the eye of a storm, with director Rupert Goold summoning all the stage trickery he can muster to match the raging torrents of Prebble’s imagination.
A bunch of dinosaurs lurking in the Enron basement represent shadow funds feeding on hidden debt; the deregulation of energy markets is told through a light-sabre dance; a pair of suited Siamese twins represents incompetent accounting firm Arthur Andersen; most extraordinarily, Enron chairman Ken Lay (Tim Piggot-Smith) preaches his company’s doctrine while seemingly standing on top of the exploding Twin Towers of 9/11.
At the heart of the action is Jeff Skilling, the amoral nerd who turned Enron from an energy company into a trading colossus. Samuel West is on blazing, bullish form as Skilling, a man eventually swamped by his own brilliance; Piggot-Smith as Lay and Tom Goodman-Hill as accounting brainiac Andy Fastow are also riveting.
Enron is a satirical epic for our times and there is clearly an appetite for it. It made its debut at Chichester’s Minerva theatre in the summer and is already booked into the West End for January. It’s savagely funny, its attacks on the vanity and corrupt stupidity of men with money hit home with laser-guided accuracy. That it is only the second play from an English writer who was just 20 when Enron fell is quite astounding.
DEATHTRAP, Novello Theatre
Once upon a time theatrical whodunits were 10-a-penny. Now all we have is The Mousetrap, which has been running in the West End since roughly 1541, and the odd revival of genre deconstructions like Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth and Deathtrap, which Ira Levin wrote in 1978. Deathtrap’s not nearly as good a play as Sleuth – it has nothing of any weight to say about anything at all, and could disappear in a cloud of smugness at its own witty ingenuity – but it’s highly entertaining none the less.
Simon Russell Beale is on fine fettle as Sidney Bruhl, a writer’s block-stricken author of – you guessed it – theatrical whodunits. After a student playwright sends him a script that looks like a sure-fire hit – and lets on that no one else has seen it, or even knows he’s written it – Bruhl spots an opportunity to off him, take credit for the success and extricate himself from the shame of living off his wife’s wealth.
Nothing, of course, is what it seems, with a plot constructed like a Russian doll, revealing level after level of façade. There are a couple of beautifully-realised leap-out-of-your-seat shocks and some good laughs – the latter thanks to Russell Beale’s typically virtuoso acting. Lord only knows what an actress of Clare Skinner’s calibre is doing in the underwritten dog of a part that is Bruhl’s wife, and she doesn’t manage to redeem it. There’s enough panache and theatrical brio here for an engaging hour and a half, but for real shocks and thrilling twists, I’d head to Ghost Stories at the Duke of York’s, a few doors down.
LOVE NEVER DIES, Adelphi Theatre
Perhaps you can’t blame him for trying. Having created, in The Phantom of the Opera, the most successful entertainment project in history, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been unable to conjure the same magic in any of his subsequent shows. Could returning to the scene of his greatest success reinvigorate his muse?
Could it heck. In Love Never Dies, which picks up the story of the Phantom and his beloved Christine 10 years later, the mystery, darkness and drama of the original have been lost along with the tunes. Once a tortured genius whose jealous love drove him to murder, the Phantom is now Mr Y, a debonair impresario staging vaudeville shows amid Coney Island’s fairground rides. He lures his beloved Christine – now a famous opera star – from France with an offer of highly-paid work, and she arrives with her husband (and the Phantom’s old nemesis) Raoul, and their 10-year-old son. Thus the old tug of love kicks off again.
The story takes one desperately implausible twist after another, and the tragic final act seems bolted on as an afterthought. The set, incorporating dizzying animated projections, is impressive but hardly compares to the misty catacombs and crashing chandeliers of the earlier show. The cast, led by Ramin Karimloo as The Phantom and Sierra Boggess as Christine, give it everything, but it’s an uphill struggle with Lloyd Webber’s insipid tunes and Glenn Slater’s uninspiring lyrics. A huge disappointment.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Donmar Warehouse
Tennessee Williams’ surging melodrama, set in New Orleans in 1949, is almost too grandiose a play for the intimate space of the Donmar Warehouse. It’s story may take place in a rundown apartment of only two rooms, but its three hours of operatic passions and wrought emotions risk getting stifled in the Donmar’s cosy confines – for a play this histrionic, one can almost be too close to the action.
There’s also a slight leap of faith required in casting Rachel Weisz as Blanche Dubois, not that it’s Weisz’s fault – at 38, she’s the right age, but looks 10 years younger and seems anything but a woman past her prime. Blanche’s protestations about losing her beauty produced the odd splutter from certain corners of the audience.
That aside, Weisz gives a forceful, silky performance as the fading Southern belle reduced to sharing dingy digs with her sister Stella (Ruth Wilson) and Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski, played with stinging muscularity by Elliot Cowan. The impending collision of Blanche, the pretentious fantasist convinced of her cultured superiority and Stanley, the working-class hulk who’s both wilier and more savage than even his wife gives him credit for, is engineered by Williams like two planets smashing together in slow-motion, and Weisz and Cowan rise to the task. The pale, wounded emotion Weisz summons in her facial expressions as Blanche cracks into insanity is something to behold.
Christopher Oram’s set conjures both the claustrophobic heat and dilapidated majesty of New Orleans – even the theatre’s balconies have been decked in ironwork as elaborate as Williams’ dialogue. This can be a long three hours, but it’s still an absorbing, layered production of one of the greatest plays ever written, anchored by performances that sizzle like a storm in the Deep South.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, Donmar Warehouse
Ibsen’s story of a woman who walks away from her empty marriage was too much for upright Victorian audiences at its first London staging in 1889. With such compelling source-material, it’s a shame Zinnie Harris’s reworked version – which relocates things from 1880s Norway to London in 1909 – is curiously bloodless, despite some fortuitous topicality.
Gillian Anderson stars as well-to-do housewife Nora, in Harris’s version married to a rising politician rather than a bank manager, Thomas Vaughan (Toby Stephens). His promotion to the Cabinet has come at the expense of a fellow politician beset by fraud allegations, Christopher Ecclestone’s Neil Kelman. But things unravel for Nora when an old debt she secretly owes to Kelman becomes his bargaining tool to win back his job.
When Thomas says “As politicians, our staple is trust,” the audience roars with laughter. Timely the show’s political element may be, but it isn’t a lot more than that. Harris somehow never really justifies her tinkering with Ibsen’s play, with plot inconsistencies and cumbersome dialogue hardly helping.
The cast is impressive, though, with Stephens in particular delivering a muscular performance as the blinkered, egotistical Thomas. Anderson, on stage for all but one scene, is willowy and vulnerable, and handles Nora’s final transition deftly. Ecclestone is full of clumsy attitude, while Tara Fitzgerald and Anton Lesser, as Christine and Dr Rank, perform admirably in awkwardly written roles.
HAMLET, Wyndhams Theatre
The second major celebrity to lift Yorrick’s skull this year, Jude Law has more at stake than David Tennant, after too many mediocre films and bad tabloid headlines. Luckily, in making the opening night without slipping a disc he’s already outdone the Timelord – and as it happens, he carries off Hamlet rather well.
Law’s disadvantage on screen can be a lack of gravitas, and there are times when that transfers to the stage too – his wiry frame and weedy voice seem at first to be less than a match to the part’s complexities. But his energy makes up for this, and he handles Hamlet’s intricate fluctuations in mood with dexterity. Puckish and wily one minute, taught and vengeful the next, there’s a fluidity and intelligence to his acting that gives him unexpected charisma.
He’s helped by Michael Grandage’s handsome production. The set, of stone castle walls with two vast doors at the rear, uses scale to emphasise the play’s vertiginous moral questions. Law delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the back of the stage, shrunken against the wall amidst a beautiful snowfall, crushed by the weight of his troubles.
Kevin McNally makes a nicely self-satisfied Claudius, and Penelope Wilton is on fine form as Gertrude, all hand-wringing indecision and weak-willed vanity. A less successful note is struck by Alex Waldman as a rather gauche Laertes, who sucks the drama out of the final scene.
A fine production, though, anchored by an excellent, worthy performance from its star.
ARCADIA, Duke of York Theatre
First staged in 1993, Tom Stoppard’s play goes on a joyride through chaos theory, romantic poets, landscape gardening, Fermat’s last theorem, the upper classes, adultery, hunting, literary criticism and any number of other themes, tied to the writer’s prodigious wordplay. It swirls, dazzles and sometimes thrills, but its eventual, conciliatory grasp at emotional resonance comes up short.
Set in the same room of a country pile in both 1809 and the present, the play follows two jousting academics as they seek to solve mysteries left behind in notes and letters by a young mathematical genius, her tutor and his friend Lord Byron, once a visitor to the house. They stumble upon naive attempts to solve the problems of the universe, before such problems were known. The modern cast, led by Neil Pearson and Samantha Bond as the academics, takes a while to warm up, acting honours going to Dan Stevens as the tutor and Nancy Carroll as the mistress of the house. It doesn’t move the heart, but it’s fun to sit back and watch Stoppard show off nonetheless – and there’s the pleasing sense from the cast that it’s just as much fun for them too.
THE REAL THING, The Old Vic
Toby Stephens turns in a performance of mischievous perfection as Henry, an annoyingly gifted, egotistical playwright, in the Old Vic’s production of Tom Stoppard’s 1983 hit. It’s the second major Stoppard revival in successive years, after last spring’s sprightly version of his 1993 play Arcadia, and more than matches that show for the writer’s trademark wordplay and slicing wit. And while it wanders a little aimlessly at points, it eventually reaches deeper emotional truths than Arcadia managed.
The play opens with an argument between a couple, caused by the apparent discovery of an infidelity. This, however, turns out to be a scene from a new play by the above-mentioned Henry. He’s married to the actress in the scene, Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar), but ends up eloping with her co-star’s wife, Annie (Hattie Morahan). The play then follows the next two years in Henry and Annie’s relationship, delving into the questions of real and merely assumed emotions and commitments, and the role of language in keeping people together and driving them apart.
If that all sounds heavy-going, it’s the opposite. This being Stoppard, every other line contains a beautifully constructed gag, pun or punchline, and he joyfully reels in themes from Sixties pop music to anti-nuclear protesters and the construction of cricket bats along the way. Stephens brings both wonderful comic timing and muscular sincerity to the central role, as Henry learns that no amount of romantic idealism can really protect him from the precariousness of love in the end.
THE MISANTHROPE,Comedy Theatre
For her theatrical debut, Keira Knightley plays a Hollywood starlet accused of the same beauty-over-talent deficiencies with which Knightley herself is regularly charged. And boy does she give it back.
Her character, megastar Jennifer, is happily surrounded by toadying sycophants in her London hotel. The misanthrope of the title is her suitor Alceste (Damian Lewis), a Victor Meldrew-esque playwright who, despite being so appalled by the flattery and fakery he encounters that he resolves to withdraw from society, keeps returning to demand her singular attention.
Moliere’s 17th century original farce attacked the foibles of French high society. Taking celebrity culture as the modern equivalent, Martin Crimp’s version – written in ingenious rhyming verse – takes swipe after viciously hilarious swipe at some pretty soft targets. It’s Knightley’s presence that gives the play piquancy, and she dishes out acid sarcasm and honeyed insults with impressive poise. Lewis is on terrific form as Alceste, and special mention must also go to Tim McMullan’s deliciously conceited theatre critic, Covington.
The play is so thick in irony, cynicism and knowingness that it becomes a pretty superficial thing itself, but that’s just one more in-joke in many. Still, it’s an enjoyably witty chamber piece, and for Knightley, a satisfying V-sign to the naysayers.
SERENADING LOUIE, Donmar Warehouse
Sometimes a play is rarely performed because it’s a forgotten masterpiece, sometimes because it’s technically difficult to stage, and sometimes because it’s an excruciatingly dull slice of whiny miserablism about the American middle classes that deserves its place in obscurity. No prizes for guessing which this is. Plucked from the shadows by the Donmar Warehouse, and performed with zest by a talented cast, Lanford Wilson’s 1974 look at the emotional and spiritual malaise of those who seem to have it all never justifies its resurrection.
The play contrasts two failing marriages. Alex is a politically ambitious lawyer unable to hold a conversation with his wife Gaby; his best friend Carl is a former high school sports star and businessman trying not to care that his wife, Mary, is having an affair. In a drab, seventies-style living room that represents both their homes, they moan, argue, moan some more, before things finally spiral from inertia into overwrought melodrama.
The cast, led by Jason Butler Harner as self-satisfied Alex and Geraldine Somerville as sly, assertive Mary, do all they can to breath fire into the piece, but the powder remains resolutely dry. The two hour running time felt much longer.
PRIVATE LIVES, Vaudeville Theatre
NOEL Coward’s 1930 comedy of ill-manners is an easy play to enjoy but can be a hard one to love, so despicably amoral and superficial are its characters. There’s much to recommend in Richard Eyre’s jaunty new production, from the comic timing of its stars Matthew MacFadyen and Kim Cattrall to the gorgeous sets, and it moves merrily along at a clip. But it still feels a little hollow at the end.
MacFadyen and Cattrall are Elyot and Amanda, a rich, indolent divorced couple, who end up honeymooning with their respective new spouses in next-door French hotel rooms. They run off to Paris where, as they ensconce themselves in Amanda’s chic love-nest of an apartment, we see the full ugly beauty of their relationship: two people drawn to each other by a wild passion, and destined always to fall into bickering confrontation – and worse – when the sex stops.
The real draw for the show is Cattrall, famous for her role as Samantha in Sex and the City, and she shows herself to be more than mere stunt casting. Her accent wobbles sometimes but she is a deft comic performer who invests Amanda with wit, and reveals a rather pretty singing voice too. As a brutishly arrogant Elyot, MacFadyen gets the most out of Coward’s dialogue, mixing caddish irreverence with an edge of real malevolence. Perhaps the most enjoyable performance, however, is Simon Paisley Day’s as Amanda’s nervous dullard of a husband Victor, having fun with his exaggerated plummy intonation.
As well as caustic comedy, there’s violence in Private Lives – “some women should be struck regularly, like a gong” says Elyot, before demonstrating. It’s the uneasy counterweight to the play’s froth, though froth and farce – much of it superbly choreographed – is the side Eyre’s production emphasises. On leaving, one feels gently entertained but not quite charmed.