Posts Tagged ‘national theatre’

 

25/10/11

To me, Mike Bartlett is one of the most interesting playwrights working today. Okay, so he misses the mark frequently, and his style is one that many find irritating – but he’s creating new and innovative work in a period when people are increasingly relying on ‘safe’ old staples.

I was first introduced to his work with Earthquakes in London. It was hectic, anarchic, chilling at times, and descended into a completely ridiculous ending that had many leaving grumbling about a ‘flash in the pan’. I liked Earthquakes. Don’t get me wrong, it was flawed, but it showed promise from a young playwright trying to shine a light on modern Britain. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as Bartlett has now graduated to the Olivier theatre, and now holds the dubious honour of being the youngest playwright in ten years to have managed this.

13 takes on a similar structure to Earthquakes, following different characters as they attempt to grapple with living in modern Britain. This is a society on the brink of a big change – though what that change is lies in the hands of the characters Bartlett portrays. The first half is almost nightmarish in quality, opening with all the characters sharing a single and terrifying dream. Militant protesters, academics, politicians and greasy solicitors are all drawn to a mysterious man named John, who speaks simple sense – offering the chance to reject materialism and greed.  The second half is a dramatic shift as the prime minister addresses John and his followers, and their opposition to an American invasion of Iran.

To be quite honest, the storyline to this is incidental. Bartlett uses the play instead to address modern concerns. This London is incredibly realistic, and far too close for comfort. Public disorder and riots, social media sites, occupying protesters – all are addressed here as Bartlett tries to stress the importance of belief, not necessarily in a God but in something, anything. He argues that this is the reason we dream of a society on the brink of collapse, because we no longer stand united behind one common goal.

This is what Bartlett does best: mixing epic theatre with political insight. There is a whiff of Tony Kushner in his ability to boil down larger issues into his characters personal relationships, and his examination of modern society is unparalleled. I don’t think I was the only one who was decidedly unnerved by his examination of the uncertainly we all face, and the comparison between young people hungering for change and the entrenched elder statesmen of politics clinging to the status quo. There was something incredibly chilling about Bartlett’s world view and the fact that, when faced with such monumental change in the world, none of us really know where all this is going.

The opening to the play is nothing short of spectacular. Laurie Anderson’s ‘Someone Elses Dream’ whispers in your ear as a gigantic cube emerges from the darkness like a monolith. (I had never heard the song before, and assumed it had been written for this play. It is a terrifying and beautiful piece of music, and I’d urge you to seek it out.) The short scenes that follow quickly introduce all the key players and sets the ambitious and hectic pace that continues throughout the first half.

The set is really beautiful in it’s seeming simplicity, using the revolve perfectly and gently moving from one scene to another in a way that seemed totally natural. The cube is used in a variety of different settings, becoming a lawyers office, and opening up to reveal a dark steel structure inside. Additional set pieces are also used in an efficient and clever way – most notably the breakfast bar, which at times has three different scenes taking place on it simultaneously.

There were also some brilliant performances on offer from a company that’s difficult to fault. The standouts were Trystan Gravelle as the prophetic John, whose gentle performances made his speeches totally believable and compelling, and Adam James as the bitter and angry lawyer. Danny Webb also gives a sterling supporting performance as a Richard Dawkins type character, providing an atheist voice to counter a preaching of John. But this performance belongs to Geraldine James, who stole it for me as the compassionate Tory Prime Minister that lost her way.

This show has a lot going for it, and at the end of the first half, if I gave star ratings it would be a solid five, I even ran down to the NT bookshop to buy the play as I was so impressed with what I had seen, but unfortunately, I did not feel the same way by the end of the show. While the first half burst from the stage with energy and passion, the second half descended into a thirty-minute conversation around a table between only three people.

 It was a very good conversation. The writing was dynamic, the exchanges interesting and relevant as John, the Prime Minister and the Atheist grappled with an imminent war – but it bore absolutely no relation to the play I was watching in the first half. To me it seemed as though Bartlett had grown bored of the epic and decided to just write a domestic drama instead – highlighting all his key points in one handy conversation.

Sometimes I wish I could take Bartlett by the shoulders and shake him vigorously. He did this in Love Love Love, and he did it in Earthquakes. He creates a bit of theatrical magic, and then ruins it thirty minutes before the end. It is the football equivalent of scoring an own goal in extra time. There is something enigmatic and incredibly interesting about this play. It brings up the confusion and conflict we all experience in our lives, while shining a light on bigger political issues. I should have come out raving about this show, instead I left disappointed and frustrated, desperately wishing that Bartlett would learn how to finish what he started.

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26/07/11

I am always wary of seeing a show late on in the run – the reviews become unavoidable and I find myself going into the theatre with a preconceived idea about whether I’m going to enjoy this. So it was with trepidation that I booked a later ticket to see One Man Two Guvnors at the Lyttleton.

Written by Carlo Goldoni in 1746, Richard Bean has updated the classic farce and set it in 1960’s Brighton, combining commedia dell’arte with traditional British slapstick humour. Any attempts to describe the storyline of this would be futile, but the general jist is that our harlequin, Francis Henshall, takes on two jobs in a bid to get enough money for a hot meal – One, Rachel Crabbe, is disguised as her dead twin, Roscoe and the other, public school twit Stanley Stubbins, is on the run from the police after killing the aforementioned Roscoe.

That’s about as easy as it gets in terms of plot – the story twists and turns at such breakneck speed that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up – but it all becomes irrelevant when faced with such chaos on stage.

James Corden as Henshall is a delight, and makes the slapstick and physical humour seem easy. There is something about his acting style that makes you immediately warm to him: his charisma is infectious, and within moments of his appearance on stage, we are on his side. There are moments of glorious fun as he attempts to control the chaos around him, while all the time trying to simply get a good meal. Corden’s comic timing is impeccable, and his physicality only adds to his fantastic performance.

 Timing is not his only asset here though, as we see him improvise and banter with the audience at various intervals, perhaps most notably in this performance when he brings up two bearded men from the audience to assist him, and the moment where he asked the audience in desperation “does anyone have a sandwich?” ; if only because the latter threw a spanner in the works when a polite audience member actually offered him a homous sandwich.

Corden is supported by a fantastic cast, all of whom meet the demands of this script with aplomb. Personal favourites were Oliver Chris as Stanley – an arrogant public school twit who has some cracking lines and a dead ringer for Hugh Laurie’s character ‘Percy’ in Blackadder. Daniel Rigby is also gloriously over the top as Alan Dangle, who wants to be an actor and has figured out a way to live his life that is appropriate to that dream.

The classic of commedia dell’arte, the climactic banquet served to different offstage dinner parties while the harlequin snaffles his own grub from their menus is treated about as traditionally as you can imagine, and Hytner has done a spectacular job here – even improving the original version. Alfie the octogenarian waiter is a new character, and is magnificently played by Tom Edden.  Corden rushes back and forth in a whirlwind of food and wine, while Alfie, the alarmingly decrepit butler is put upon in a variety of ways, being slammed into doors, thrown down the stairs, and very nearly killed by a cork.

I realise as I am writing this that it is less of a review and more of a description of the best bits – I don’t think there can be any higher praise than that. I was so full of joy and glee at watching these that any thought of criticism left my mind immediately. Instead, I was sucked into this silly situation and laughed uproariously at every twist and turn.

While the second act does not shine as brightly as the first, as Kenneth Tynan said of the Broadway premiere of Gypsy, the show tails off into mere brilliance. There is more than a whiff of Noises Off here, and I am certain that this show will also have the endurance of Frayn’s 1980’s farce. I’m delighted that this is transferring to the West End, and urge you to see it – there is something here for everyone to enjoy and, despite being based on an Italian style, this show made me feel very proud to be British.

Favourite line
Alan:                “I am your nemesis!”
Roscoe:            “Francis, what’s a nemesis?”
Francis:            “Not sure, guv, definitely foreign, I think it’s a Citroen.”

Running Time – 2hours 50 minutes (if you’re on a time limit – allow a bit more in case of extreme ad-libbing!)

Programmes: £3, Ice cream: £3 – don’t normally have an ice cream but by gum this stuff was lovely! Highly recommend the mango sorbet.