Thursday 21 February 2013

Theatre Review: Maurice's Jubilee (Richmond, & touring)

Much media chatter, of late, has centred on the so-called “grey pound” in relation to cinema and the current crop of films – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, the peerless Amour, the about-to-open Song For Marion – appealing to an under-recognised older audience keen to see their own experiences on screen. Theatre – a medium that’s presumed to attract an older audience already – hasn’t formed part of this discussion thus far. And yet the fact is that dramas based exclusively around elderly characters have been just as much of a rarity on stage as they have been in the cinema.

Which makes Nichola McAuliffe’s Maurice’s Jubilee both a novelty and a cause for celebration. A surprise hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Hannah Eidinow’s production of McAuliffe’s play (in which the actress also takes one of the three roles) now embarks on a nationwide tour. And the piece looks likely to win itself many more admirers on its travels as it capitalises quirkily on the oddly Royalist sympathies of our post-Jubilee, post-King’s Speech moment.

The Maurice of the title (Julian Glover) is an ailing 89-year-old former jeweller who’s been married to Helena (Sheila Reid) for many years. Cancer-stricken, and by turns quipping and querulous, Maurice has another significant woman in his life, though: the Queen, whom he claims to have shared an intimate moment with on the evening before the coronation, when he was entrusted with the task of collecting the Crown Jewels from Buckingham Palace and transporting them to Westminster Abbey. The memory of that encounter has been central to Maurice’s life ever since, and he fully believes that the Queen will honour the engagement she made with him back then and turn up for tea at the house on his 90th birthday. Helena is dismayed by her husband’s fixation, but his care assistant Katie (McAuliffe) thinks that there might just be a way to make Maurice’s dream of a reunion with Her Majesty come true.

McAuliffe was last seen on stage in Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, and a touch or too of Bennett seems to have seeped into the themes and the language of Maurice’s Jubilee, which suggests a companion piece of sorts to the playwright’s 2007 novella The Uncommon Reader. But I’m happy to report that this three-hander is a good deal more satisfying and appealing than Bennett’s current effort, People, at the National Theatre, an institution that’s the butt of one of Maurice’s Jubilee’s funnier jokes.

The play’s premise – that Maurice’s obsession with his encounter with the Queen has alienated his wife and led to estrangement from his son – stretches credibility and the plot become increasingly fanciful as it progresses - right up to a cheeky final twist. However, if McAuliffe’s writing sometimes resorts to whimsy and formulaic comedy (yes, there are Viagra gags) the affectionate, generous tone of the piece proves hard to resist, ultimately.

As do the grace notes that the actors bring to the material. Julian Glover is aces as Maurice, particularly in a lengthy, delicately-delivered monologue in which his encounter with the Queen is recalled. The ever-sprightly Sheila Reid subtly suggests a lifetime of hurt feelings underpinning Helena’s merry pretensions. And McAuliffe makes Katie a cheerful, humorous woman whose own domestic situation - unmarried, childless, living with an elderly father - is not presented in crude, Another Year-style contrast to the happiness of the long-married couple. All three actors have prodigious ease on stage and it’s a pleasure to watch them interact throughout.

The warmth of the script and the performances extends to the design: Christopher Richardson provides a cosy set for Helena and Maurice’s living room (the pair has “down-sized” from a Barnes house to a Penge bungalow following - note topical touch - the loss of shares and savings in Bradford and Bingley and Northern Rock). McAuliffe’s writing also revels in particular daily detail - Trebor mints, Flog It! on the telly, Edmundo Ros on the stereo - which gives the play a palpable sense of everyday domestic life and counters the more far-fetched aspects of the plotting. The tour lasts until April (dates and venues below). But it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see this slight but charming crowd-pleaser making its way into the West End – somewhere near Peter Morgan’s The Audience, perhaps?

Touring to: Brighton Theatre Royal (26 February – 2 March), Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre (5-9 March), Malvern (11 – 16 March), Bromley Churchill Theatre (26-30 March) and Cambridge Arts Theatre (2-6 April).

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Monday 18 February 2013

Theatre Review: The Stepmother (Orange Tree)

There’s a decidedly feminist bent to the opening of the 2013 Orange Tree season, which begins with two cross-cast, seldom-seen dramas exploring women’s lot in early 20th century England. First off the blocks is Sam Walters’s deft, intelligent production of Githa Sowerby’s 1924 play The Stepmother – a timely choice given that Northern Broadsides’s take on Sowerby’s best-known play, Rutherford and Son, is currently doing the touring rounds. Formally conventional, with echoes of Granville Barker, Galsworthy and Pinero, Sowerby’s play focuses on Lois, a twentysomething stepmother to two grown-up girls, Monica and Betty, who runs a successful dress-making business. The fly in the ointment for the hard-working Lois is her much-older spouse, Eustace Gaydon, an unmerry widower who married Lois for an inheritance that he’d expected to come to him, the bulk of which he’s now frittered away in shady business deals. The crunch comes when Lois – unaware of her husband’s actions – pledges a whopping £10,000 “settlement” for Monica’s wedding, and the self-justifying and blame-apportioning Eustace is forced to fess up to his dodgy dealings.

The Stepmother genuinely deserves the title of “rediscovery,” for Walters’s production is in fact the professional premiere of Sowerby’s play, which had one private performance in 1924 and hasn’t been staged since. While the piece certainly deserved a better fate than that, it’s not entirely unclear why it’s been neglected: there are occasional lags and flags of interest in the drama, some sketchy characterisation and - after an absolutely superb opening scene in which we see Eustace beginning his campaign of manipulation against the vulnerable, orphaned Lois - the play sometimes struggles to sustain sufficient intensity; a rather English mildness, even a triviality, sometimes settles on the piece. At its best, though, Sowerby’s writing has both bite and insight, and its demonstration that a married woman’s financial security can be entirely undermined by the husband who’s actually controlling the purse-strings certainly resonates. (As does the play’s gentle subversion of the “wicked stepmother” archetype.) In addition, the play connects nicely with previous Orange Tree productions dealing with marriage and inheritance, in particular Susan Glaspell’s Allison’s House, Allan Monkhouse’s Mary Broome, and Pinero’s The Thunderbolt.

A skilful cast also help to fill out some of the gaps. The gorgeous-voiced Christopher Ravenscroft – an actor it’s generally difficult to dislike (see here and here) – slyly subverts his natural charm as the useless, scheming Eustace; never can the assurance “we’re married people – what’s yours is mine” have rung more sinisterly. Julia Watson sketches an indelible portrait of elderly befuddlement as Eustace’s ailing aunt, and Jennifer Higham and Emily Tucker are lovely, lively presences as the daughters. And playing the multi-tasking, manipulated heroine, the radiant, sympathetic Katie McGuinness (formerly Mary Broome) conveys both innocence and tenacity, as Lois slowly realises what another character articulates: that, when it comes to apparent affairs of the heart, in one way or another it’s actually “the money that matters.”

The production runs until 9th March. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Theatre Review: The Vortex (Rose, Kingston)

Timothy Dalton, Rupert Everett, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Young: it’s a diverse range of contemporary actors who’ve been drawn to play Nicky Lancaster in Noël Coward’s The Vortex – the part that Coward devised for himself in the play that made his name in 1924. It’s not hard to see why, perhaps: the role of the talented, neurotic, coke-addicted young composer has a straight-up melodramatic appeal that’s hard to resist. Stephen Unwin’s new production of the play at Kingston’s Rose casts David Dawson (of the Donmar’s Luise Miller and the Royal Court’s Posh) as Nicky, with Kerry Fox as his mother Florence, the ageing beauty who’s presented as the cause of much of her son’s self-destructiveness and angst. And while lacking the charged-up, close-up intensity of Michael Grandage’s production at the Donmar ten years ago, Unwin’s sleek revival proves a highly engaging staging of one of Coward’s most potent plays.

Daring in its day – “un peu shocking,” in the words of its own author – The Vortex still has power and punch, as Coward views the decadence of the 1920s upper-class with a mixture of fascination and critique. The chief object of his disapproval is Florence: a socialite who keeps herself occupied with a string of toy-boys in order to hold back the years. But the principal emotional interest of the drama lies in the damaging effect that Florence’s behaviour has on Nicky, with tensions coming to a head when the young man returns to the family fold from Paris, only to discover that his mother’s current squeeze, a Guards Officer named Tom (Jack Hawkins), is a former beau of his own fiancée Bunty (Sophie Rundle).

The play’s move from classic Cowardian quippage to a final soul-baring duologue between Nicky and Florence that’s more than a little reminiscent of the Hamlet closet scene (with a touch of Ibsen’s Ghosts on the side) is challenging. But Unwin’s production remains alert to the play’s sharp shifts of mood and navigates them nicely, despite excessively jaunty music from Olly Fox and a design by Neil Warmington that has some questionable ideas (especially in the final scene) along with some clever ones (dig the red lips sofa!)

Key to the play’s success is the subtle complexity of its characterisation. There’s a whiff of misogyny, perhaps, in the presentation of Florence – a self-absorbed “Mommy Dearest” whose behaviour has broken both her husband (sympathetic William Chubb) and her son. But it’s offset by an edgy compassion, too. And Kerry Fox – a surprising casting choice for Florence – digs out the character’s underlying fears and insecurities while also conveying her vanity and casual cruelty, endowing Florence with a memorable tragic grandeur. She’s well-matched by the compelling Dawson who conveys both petulance and real pain as the tormented son. In recent years, it’s become commonplace to view part of Nicky’s “problem” as repressed gay desire, of course, and that idea is certainly implicit here, in the ironic spins that Dawson puts on certain lines and the sham that Nicky’s engagement to Bunty is shown to represent.

As the other members of Florence’s gossipy circle, James Dreyfus tosses out bitchy quips with panache and Helen Atkinson Wood gets some fruity comic moments, while Rebecca Johnson – too rarely seen on stage in recent years – brings exceptional candour and sensibility (plus an unexpected touch of Sapphic desire) to her role as Florence’s confidante, whose task it is to alert both mother and son to the possibility of a life beyond the destructive social vortex. Recommended.

Runs until 2nd March.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Theatre Review: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (Trafalgar Studios)

Hemingway's FIESTA (The Sun Also Rises) Tickets at Trafalgar Studios,

My review of Alex Helfrecht's stage adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises is up at One Stop Arts.

Monday 4 February 2013

Film Review: Song For Marion (Williams, 2012)

The latest "grey pound" foray, Paul Andrew Williams's Song For Marion, starring Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, gets its UK release this month. I reviewed the movie as part of my London Film Festival coverage last year, in terms that elicited some immediate feedback from the director elsewhere. (#JoysofTwitter.) Anyway, you can read my take on the film here.