Friday 22 March 2013

Theatre Review: Steptoe and Son (Lyric Hammersmith)

My review of Kneehigh's adaptation of Steptoe and Son  is up at One Stop Arts. Taster below; full thing here.  

Neil Murray's excellent design places a cart as cumbersome as Mother Courage's at the centre of the stage; a large moon hangs overhead and morphs, momentarily, into a clock and a screen. In the middle of a quarrel Steptoe (Mike Shepherd) and son (Dean Nolan) stop to bop, sometimes joined by a mercurial female figure, the Woman (Kirsty Woodward), who weaves her way through the action, in a series of guises that include trolley-dolly Bunny Girl and flower-power hippy. (The role is somewhat reminiscent of Meow Meow's turn as Lola in Kneehigh's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg adaptation.) Music, throughout, is central to the piece, but don't expect to hear the familiar clip-clop of the TV theme tune. Rather, Rice and sound designer Simon Baker opt for an eclectic set of songs (from Cliff Richard, The Rolling Stones, Louis Armstrong and many others) to conjure moods, suggest the passing years, and gesture towards the wider world that seems to remain forever outside of the protagonists' grasp.

Some of these touches are striking and beguiling. The end of the first half, for example – a moment of resignation scored to the strains of Roy Orbison's "It's Over" – is sublime, while a sequence in which father and son dress for an important encounter, with Elvis's "Always on my Mind" playing on the gramophone, is as lovely a moment as I anticipate seeing on stage this year. At such times, Rice and her collaborators really do succeed in getting us to see the protagonists and their relationship freshly. The problem is that other elements feel too much like self-conscious "touches": extraneous bits of business insufficiently integrated into the whole.

Monday 18 March 2013

Theatre Review: The Man Who Pays The Piper (Orange Tree)

Deirdre Mullins in The Man Who Pays The Piper (Orange Tree)

Beau in tow, irreverent 18-year-old Daryll Fairley (Deirdre Mullins) tangos home in the early hours after a night on the town, much to the chagrin of her pa Arthur (Christopher Ravenscroft), who’s waiting up to let her in. Daryll, you see, isn’t allowed a latch-key of her own, unlike her older brother. Pointing out the unfairness of this situation, Daryll expresses her desire to be “independent,” an idea which her father disdains. “It’s time you married – a man who can master you,” Arthur proclaims, reminding Daryll that, while she’s under his roof (and receiving an allowance from him), it’s he who gets to make the rules.

The contradictions inherent in this excellent opening scene resonate throughout GB Stern’s 1931 play The Man Who Pays The Piper which explores shifts in gender roles (and their economic underpinnings) in the post-World War I period, its wider social picture emerging through an intimate focus on the Fairley family’s fortunes over almost 20 years. It’s no coincidence that the play chimes beautifully with the previous Orange Tree production The Stepmother (with which it’s partially – and very effectively – cross-cast), as another examination of the way that “money matters” in familial relationships, penned by another insightful (and neglected) woman writer grappling with the changes of her time. As in Githa Sowerby’s play, the focus in The Man Who Pays The Piper is on a female breadwinner, for after her father’s death it’s Daryll who ends up being the head of the Fairley household, taking over the running of a West End dress-making firm and supporting the (ever-growing) family financially. It’s a role that Daryll views with increasing ambivalence, though, as she finds herself in the unfortunate position of echoing her father’s pronouncements about what should and shouldn’t be done in the house.

Less straightforward – and ultimately richer – than The Stepmother, Stern’s play is a fascinatingly conflicted work that never seems to resolve its feelings about its complex and compelling heroine. At the heart of the piece is an exploration of domestic power, and the suggestion that being the economic head of a household has the potential to make a man or a woman become a tyrant - or, perhaps, just someone laying down justifiable boundaries and rules. On the one hand the piece presents Daryll as a completely competent woman: shrewd and intelligent in business, mostly generous to the family’s demands. On the other, it comes close to suggesting that there’s something particularly corrupting or “unnatural” about a female assuming this role, as Daryll struggles with her work/life balance, becomes tetchy and demanding at times, and deems marriage to her ever-patient boyf Rufus (Simon Harrison) to be an impossibility.

Helen Leblique’s fluid and confident production embraces the play’s contradictions. The evening is lengthy (2 hours 45 minutes including interval) but momentum doesn’t flag, primarily because Stern’s writing is so full of surprises and unexpected developments. The play keeps you on your toes, changing mood and tone very swiftly from comedy to crisis. Ironies and incongruities abound. There’s a very surprising remarriage, a blazing row that swerves into a proposal, a wonderful moment of supreme drunken revelry. And Leblique makes even the set changes witty.

A large cast skilfully fleshes out vivid characters. Stuart Fox is hilarious as an unexpected new family member. Emily Tucker is piquant as the good-time-girl flagrantly disobeying her sister’s rules yet dismayed at the prospect of leaving behind her home comforts. As another sister, Jennifer Higham makes herself the epitome of eager-to-please timidity, while Julia Watson, as Mother, is the quintessence of daffiness. And the brilliant Deirdre Mullins captures precisely Daryll’s conflicts as she finds herself both despising and delighting in her position as the family “autocrat.”

The conflicts within the play itself are never more apparent than in a spectacularly confounding final scene which comes up with a wonderfully unusual – yet perfectly workable – solution to a particular dilemma, then backtracks and rejects it, before seeming to backtrack again, ending the piece on a memorable moment of ambiguity. Beautifully brought out in Leblique’s production, the combination of the radical and the reactionary in Stern’s writing makes The Man Who Pays The Piper an absorbing rediscovery, and one guaranteed to provoke a lot of post-show debate.

The production is booking until 13th April. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Monday 11 March 2013

Theatre Review: The Winslow Boy (Old Vic)

“Let right be done” is the “time-honoured phrase” at the heart of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy, in which a 14-year-old Royal Naval College cadet, Ronnie Winslow, accused of the theft of a five-shilling postal order, finds himself at the centre of a legal battle spearheaded by his father, Arthur, who’s determined to clear his son’s name. Lindsay Posner’s new production, currently in previews at the Old Vic, certainly “does right” by Rattigan’s great play, elegantly revealing its sorrows, its humour and its hopes. Posner recently screwed up The Turn of the Screw at the Almeida, but he’s on form this time around, delivering a beautiful, deeply felt production that’s entirely absorbing and perfectly judged. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine seeing the play served better than it is here.

Rattigan’s writing formed an important part of British cultural life in 2011 – the playwright’s centenary year which saw London productions of Flare Path and Cause Célèbre, revivals of queerish minor gems such as While the Sun Shines and a great Chichester season dedicated to his work (reviews here, here and here), plus Terence Davies’s not-so-great film of The Deep Blue Sea, of course. Like the best of those productions, The Winslow Boy again reveals Rattigan’s strengths as a dramatist: watertight structure, elegant dialogue, perceptive characterisation, humanity of vision. Unlike The Deep Blue Sea and (to a lesser extent) The Browning Version, though, The Winslow Boy doesn’t have sex at its centre (or on its sidelines, either) and so can seem a tamer proposition than those later plays by comparison. A courtroom drama that (praise be) never shows us the inside of a courtroom, it feels like the sort of work that should have dated, with its characters’ earnest musings on justice, innocence and individual liberty.

And yet, without resorting to anything remotely tricksy (his production is "traditional" in the best sense of the word), Posner makes the piece feel fresh and reveals it to be both funny and quirky. Not only do individual lines surprise you with their relevance, but what’s also striking is the way in which the play keeps calling its own dramatic premise into question. Again and again, characters comment on the wisdom of Arthur’s obsession and ponder whether proving Ronnie’s innocence really matters so very much, especially since the boy (endearingly played by Charlie Rowe here) is soon happily ensconced in a new school and seems oddly indifferent to the outcome of the trial himself.

The point of the play is to show us that it does matter, of course. But the tensions that are raised make the drama much more complex, scene by scene, than the quest-for-justice plot suggests. Rattigan lets our sympathies shift throughout, as doubts, anxieties and convictions move from character to character. Ronnie’s pleasure-loving brother Dickie (Nick Hendrix) feels that “pinching’s nothing” and wonders if the fuss made by their father isn’t “much ado about damn all.” Mother, Grace (Deborah Findlay), also poignantly questions the motives of Arthur (Henry Goodman) for continuing the case as the family come under increasing financial and emotional strain. Their feminist daughter, Catherine (Naomi Frederick), shares her father’s conviction about the trial’s importance (though not for precisely the same reasons). But she, like the rest of the family, ends up making a considerable sacrifice for it. This being Rattiganland any such privations are borne “with fortitude,” natch.

The play’s showiest role is that of Sir Robert Morton, the lawyer hired by Arthur to make the family’s case against the Admiralty, and who’s misjudged as “a hard, cold-blooded, supercilious fish” by Catherine. Jeremy Northam’s take on the part in David Mamet’s fine film of the play casts a long shadow but Peter Sullivan invests the character with an engaging wry authority here. Still what counts the most in Posner’s production is the family context, and the actors succeed in fleshing out an entirely convincing dynamic. Proper yet mildly eccentric, loving but seldom friction-free, you believe in them completely as a family unit. Henry Goodman is gripping as the driven patriarch, whose own health suffers for his single-mindedness in pursuing the case. At first it seems that Deborah Findlay is resorting to the mannered mode she employed in the NT’s Timon of Athens last year - voice sliding down at the end of lines; hands stabbing out in gestures - but the performance takes hold gradually, as the actress shows maternal warmth and frustration at Arthur’s obsession finally settling into an amused, what-the-hell exuberance and resolve to enjoy the courtroom spectacle.

Charismatic Nick Hendrix – channelling a similar kind of easy-going charm to that which he displayed a couple of years ago in ETT’s wonderful Eden End – makes Dickie Winslow puppyishly loveable; when, near the end, this genial fellow talks cheerfully about the prospect of going to war (the rumble of which is felt throughout Rattigan’s play, which covers 1912 to 1914) it’s a truly chilling moment. (On a personal note, I quibble with Dickie on just one point: you can indeed “keep late hours in Reading.”)

The expert Naomi Frederick brings exactly the right kind of candour and directness to Catherine, and Jay Villiers does a gem of a supporting turn as the lawyer who loves her, blushing with pride when recognised for his cricketing prowess, but never made a mere figure of fun. Posner’s production, classily designed by Peter McKintosh and lovingly lit by Tim Mitchell, ensures that every encounter between these characters carries its precise emotional weight and the near-3 hour running time zips by. In sum: an exquisite evening that’s not to be missed.

The production is booking until 25 May. Further information at the Old Vic website.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Theatre Review: Fences (Richmond Theatre, & touring)

Hooray, Henry! Although nobody actually goes so far as to shout that out, one nonetheless senses a great deal of audience goodwill towards Lenny Henry as he takes to the stage in Theatre Royal Bath’s touring revival of August Wilson’s Fences. Having proved his Shakespearean chops in a (mostly) well-received Northern Broadsides Othello in 2009 and last year as Antipholus of Syracuse in the NT’s The Comedy of Errors, Henry now turns to the contemporary American theatre for his next challenge, taking on the role of the flawed patriarch Troy Maxson (first played on Broadway by James Earl Jones, no less) in Paulette Randall’s production of Wilson’s 1983 play. And – after a slightly shaky start in which he appears to be rushing through his lines with unseemly speed - Henry acquits himself admirably here, delivering a compelling performance that forcefully shows how an oppressed man – bluff and blinkered yet capable of tenderness - might become an oppressor of sorts in his own household. It’s not long before you don’t see Henry in the role at all; you just experience the tensions and emotions of the character.

Fences, of course, forms part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays - this one covering the late 1950s into the mid-60s – and a description of the piece as an African-American variant on Death of a Salesman sounds horribly reductive. But it’s not an entirely inaccurate description for this play, which, like Miller’s work, is much concerned with generational legacy and father-son conflict, and whose protagonist is thwarted by a combination of social circumstances and personal flaws. (There's even an intentional echo in the characters' names perhaps: Loman becomes Maxson.)

Troy is a 53-year-old municipal garbage collector who was, in his youth, a star baseball player, a career that he claims was curtailed due to the colour bar. The bitterness of that deferred dream still causes tension, and affects Troy’s relationship with his two sons. Lyons (Peter Bankole) is a musician whose gigs Troy refuses to attend, while the teenage Cory (Ashley Zhangazha) is a talented football player who has the chance of a college education, an opportunity that Troy is entirely reluctant to encourage. Troy’s relationship with his good-humoured, peace-keeping wife Rose (Tanya Moodie) seems strong but a revelation of adultery brings further strife to the Maxson household.

Wilson’s writing has its flaws: it can be exposition-heavy, sentimental, and over-obvious in its symbolism and allusions. (Example: a character named Gabriel wields a trumpet.) At its strongest, though, this family drama goes straight to the heart, fleshing out compelling character histories in a distinctive idiom that balances naturalism with heightened, poetic touches. And Randall’s production, which benefits from both an excellent house-and-porch design by Libby Watson and from Delroy Murray’s fine bluesy score, is attuned to the rhythms of Wilson’s language and encourages sympathy for the play’s characters across the board.

Henry’s commanding turn is well-supported by deft work from the other cast members. That said, I found Tanya Moodie as Rose a tad problematic. Affecting in quieter moments, the actress tends to overpitch her more dramatic scenes, with the result that a couple of key reactions feel fake. But there are performances of exceptional naturalness from Bankole and Zhangazha as the sons, from Terence Maynard as Troy’s brain-damaged brother (who provides the play with its final unexpected flourish) and from Colin McFarlane as Troy’s best buddy Bono. A central scene in which Troy and Bono reminisce about their pasts shows Wilson’s writing at its very best, creating an absorbing and moving moment of shared intimacy that’s illuminated with insight and understanding by Randall’s elegant production.

Touring to: Marlborough Gate (18 March), Oxford Playhouse (25th March), Theatre Cymru, (1st April), Malvern Theatre (8th April), Cambridge Arts Theatre (15th April).

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

Friday 1 March 2013

Film Review: Robot & Frank (Schreier, 2012)

The premise of Jake Schreier’s intermittently enjoyable comedy Robot & Frank initially suggests something of a neglectful offspring’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. In “the near future,” robot butlers are available to help the elderly and infirm (or the plain lazy) with household chores and other jobs. One such creation is purchased by Hunter Weld (James Marsden) for his pa Frank (Frank Langella), a grouchy, isolated and confused man who lives alone in Cold Spring, New York. Frank - a former cat burglar who still steals, on occasion, from a gift store (it seems almost a reflex action) - initially disdains the presence of his new companion whom he labels “a death machine.” But Frank begins to change his mind when he sees the potential of Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him out with some burglarising schemes.

What Schreier fashions from this set-up is, in essence, an old-fashioned buddy movie, one that brings sci-fi touches into a domestic sitcom scenario. Alas, while crisply edited and boasting some funny and appealing moments, the movie is not everything it could've been. Admirably, Schreier and screenwriter Christopher Ford attept to avoid cuteness by having Frank warm to Robot only when he begins to see him as an aid to criminal activity. But, at the same time, the movie's rather relaxed attitude to burglary - acceptable if perpetrated against unctuous yuppies, apparently - leaves a sour taste. The film starts smart(ish) but gets sillier as it goes along, and by the time Frank and Robot are outwitting cops and going "on the lam" it's possible that you may start experiencing Short Circuit flashbacks. Moreover, Schreier and Ford aren't above crudely striving for "depth" by comparing Frank's "confusion" – the film stops short of calling it Alzheimer's Disease – to the possibility of Robot having its memory wiped.

The performances from the distinguished cast are, for the most part, nicely pitched. The expert Langella can do disgruntled like no other and the most amusing and engaging episodes in the movie are the early ones that bounce his annoyance off of Robot's calm professionalism. ("I'm not a robot. I'm a health-care aid," the machine insists, and Sarsgaard's cool, measured, Malkovich-esque tones are perfect for the delivery of such a statement.) Liv Tyler is also effective as Frank's meddling daughter Madison, and it's lovely, as ever, to see Susan Sarandon on screen, bringing her customary radiance to her too-minor role as Jennifer, the local librarian who's a possible romantic opportunity for Frank. But Robot & Frank begins to lose bite as it progresses, finally taking an unnecessarily icky turn into cosy family values territory and lifting a sadly unconvincing late twist directly from Nicholas Fackler's little-seen Lovely, Still (2008). It's a fitting conclusion, in a way: this is a movie that's so keen on larceny it ends up committing it.

UK release: 8th March.