Friday 27 October 2017

Theatre Review: Romantics Anonymous (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Forget Follies. (And, believe me, when it comes to that damn “Loveland” sequence, I’m still trying to....) A little further down the Southbank there’s now a lovely, intimate, humanly-scaled alternative. As the opening production of her final “Winter Season” as Globe Artistic Director, Emma Rice has turned the stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse into a chocolate factory, adapting Jean-Pierre Améris’s 2010 French-Belgian rom com Les émotifs anonymes into a sweetheart of a new musical that charms and amuses throughout.

Rice and the Globe board may not have proved to be an ideal match, but Rice and “le cinéma Français” certainly are, as previously demonstrated by Kneehigh’s glorious take on Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg back in 2011. Romantics Anonymous has a similar kind of spirit to that show: ludic and loving, soulful and silly, by turns. But, though difficult themes are glanced at, there’s much less melancholy in this material. Working with lyricist Christopher Dimond and composer Michael Kooman, Rice makes Romantics Anonymous into the equivalent of a big, warm hug: just what’s needed to brighten winter nights.  

The plot concerns the burgeoning romance between two characters with social anxiety issues. Angélique is a timid girl who, wishing to build her confidence, starts attending sessions at the “Les émotifs anonymes” support group. Through a contact there she ends up working as a sales rep at the chocolate factory run by Jean-René, a guy who, it turns out, is even more introverted than she is, as he skulks in his office listening to passive aggressive self-help tapes. A disastrous date follows, before love starts to blossom. But with the factory under threat, Angélique may be called upon to truly overcome her inhibitions and reveal her own secret chocolate-making skills.

Rice has said that she wanted to make Romantics Anonymous “very European” in tone, but in many ways the show feels British through and through: I found myself thinking of The Two Ronnies and Dinnerladies at various points. As in Cherbourg, the Frenchness of the source is intermittently played up with “haw-hee-haw-ing” cheek, particularly when the beret- and striped-shirt-sporting ensemble archly croon the hilarious “Don’t Think about Love” while wheeling out a bed and flinging rose petals for our hero and heroine’s first night together.

Dimond and Kooman have talked about French influences on the score, too – from Satie to Debussy – and, played here by a skilled quartet (Sophie Creaner on woodwind, Mike Porter on percussion, Llinos Richards on cello and MD Jim Henson on piano), the music has a lovely, light, gently undulating quality, with just enough bite and quirk to make revisiting the score an attractive proposition. The lyrics are variable, but sung with conviction by the cast, who seize on the wittiest lines and deliver them with gusto.

Indeed, Rice has recruited many of her favourite actors for this confection (including several from her Twelfth Night, which opened the “Summer of Love” season back in May). They all shine, with Carly Bawden (Twelfth Night’s minx of a Maria) and Dominic Marsh making a charmingly awkward pair; they’re especially delightful when singing together on “Some Things are Too Good for Words,” as funny and sweetly sexy a duet as recent musical theatre has offered.

Bawden and Marsh are well supported by a superb ensemble who multitask with gleeful aplomb, whether it’s Marc Antolin as a computer geek and a strident chef, or Joanna Riding moving from gruff Corrie-ish factory worker to incongruously sexy matriarch. (Riding also takes the wheel for one of the funniest driving sequences that the stage has seen recently.) I also loved Gareth Snook as both Angélique’s father-figure benefactor and a highly-strung prospective female buyer, and Natasha Jayetileke as the support group attendee who’s so bad at saying “No” that she buys PPI twice a week. (Since Rice, in her "Letter" regarding her departure from the Globe, seemed to define herself as a people-pleaser, can we detect a bit of wry self-portraiture here?) Lez Brotherston’s glowing design (with location shifts signalled by neon signs) also helps to keep the proceedings fleet and fluid, and Etta Murfitt’s witty choreography makes the most of the small space. 

Romantics Anonymous is slight, and those resistant to Rice’s brand of whimsy will doubtless find it too winsome a proposition – though in fact there’s a steely undercurrent to the show's presentation of the courage it takes to embrace change and face fears. The ending feels a bit rushed, and not quite magical enough, yet. Still, small of scale but huge of heart, this show is a charmer, and a perfect start to the final season of Rice’s all-too-brief time at the helm of the Globe.

Romantics Anonymous is booking until 6 January. Further information here

Theatre Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Merton Arts Space, & touring)

Published in 1886, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich remains among the most immediate and moving of all literary meditations on mortality, documenting the demise of a seemingly successful man, a legal functionary, as he belatedly questions the value and purpose of his life. Rosemary Edwards, a translator of the text, describes the novella as “a powerful, sombre record…[It] gives what Tolstoy required art to give: it is kinetic, moving the reader to intense pity and awareness of the spiritually therapeutic properties of prolonged physical suffering finally resolved in death.”
Sounds a cheerful proposition, right? Well, Stephen Sharkey, in his expert new stage adaptation of the novella, succeeds in retaining the intense moral seriousness of Tolstoy’s vision while also incorporating some elements of dark humour – a touch of Beckettian irony – into the mix. Sharkey has shaped the narrative into a dramatic monologue performed by one actor in under one hour, and while this has resulted in some necessary stripping away – of elements of social context, of the protagonist’s background and family history – the essentials remain, sometimes even gaining potency in their new form as an embodied, closely shared theatrical experience. This is adaptation as distillation, and Sharkey, whose other adaptations include writings by Dickens and Dostoyevsky, has done a hugely impressive job of giving Tolstoy’s work a vivid, fresh and immersive theatrical life.
Pungent and wry, Sharkey’s text is expertly served by Attic Theatre’s production, directed by the company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Humphreys, which (as staged at Merton Arts Space) makes the play into a thrillingly intimate experience. At once eerie and welcoming, Grace Venning and Jess Bernberg’s brilliant design (set/costume and lighting, respectively) places the audience at tables lit by lanterns, conjuring an atmosphere of séance that feels entirely appropriate for Sharkey’s revisioning of the material as a ghost story of sorts. Jack Tarlton’s spectre-like Ivan takes his place amongst us, a spirit who’s unsure if we can see him. Once reassured, he begins to tell his tale: that of a St. Petersburg-born magistrate whose life – with its unhappy marriage, social climbing, gambling, and Law Court duties – is abruptly curtailed when he’s struck down with a mysterious illness some time after an accident.
As Ivan – by turns bitter, denying, scared, confused and questioning – gradually confronts his fate, so other presences (a dim prospective son-in-law, a hypocritical friend, a kindly young peasant carer) come into focus, with Sharkey also spotlighting Tolstoy’s indelible image of impending mortality as “the black sack,” both feared and desired by the protagonist. 

A show as intimate as this one naturally stands or falls in large part on the strength of its actor, and it’s hard to see how Tarlton’s performance as Ivan could be bettered. From the opening moments, Tarlton makes us his fellows and confidantes, directing lines at individual audience members, taking a seat at certain tables, or even (in a gesture evoking the already-famed performance art set-piece in Ruben Östlund's new film The Square [2017]) climbing atop one table to lay himself out as a corpse. Now still, now charging, Tarlton’s attention to the rhythms of the text is evident vocally as well as physically, and he keeps a palpable tension in the air, not allowing us to forget that Ivan’s fate is the common fate of everyone present. There’s catharsis in that recognition too, though, and Tarlton brings to Ivan’s journey a true sense of spiritual and emotional progression. It’s a terrific performance, rich and generous, unsentimental and intensely felt, and one that’s destined to make a deeply personal impression on all who see it.
In another generous gesture, Attic have been staging a stripped down, “pop up” version of the show, for free, at libraries in the Merton area. It’s to be hoped that Humphreys’s haunting production, and Tarlton’s great performance, continue to get the further life that they deserve.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich was performed at Merton Arts Space between the 6 and 29 October 2017, before one night at Theatre N16, and four free performances at libraries in the Merton borough.
Photos: Claudia Marinaro

Monday 23 October 2017

DVD Review: Life is Sweet (dir. Mike Leigh [1990]; BFI, 2017)

My review of the new BFI DVD/Blu-ray re-release of Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet (1990) is up at PopMatters. You can read it here