Rosmer Home from Home

Henrik Ibsen, Rosmerholm (directed by Ian Rickson, Duke of York’s Theatre)

I thought I’d never seen any Henrik Ibsen — aside from The Master Builder and perhaps Ghosts on the telly — but I did teach A Doll’s House twenty years ago. Rosemerholm (1886) is quite a late play, but I’ll avoid saying much more until I’ve read the whole play — and I’ll discuss that in a less spoiler-free blogpost.

Rosmerholm
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You made a first-class fool out of me

Christopher Hampton, A German Life (Directed by Jonathan Kent, Br/dge Theatre)

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I was going to London on the day that tickets for this went on sale and I did wonder whether the SouthEastern WiFi would be up to it. I was three thousand in the queue with fifty five minutes on board and got to check out just as we hit the tunnels around Stratford. I was lucky — this may well be the only time I get to see the legendary star of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads live.

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Suite Caroline

Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music), Caroline, or Change (directed by Michael Longhurst, Playhouse Theatre, London)

I was lucky enough to catch a day-long double bill of Tony Kushner’s extraordinary Angels in America at the National Theatre in 2017 and was intrigued enough to want to see Caroline, or Change at Chichester… but I’d only discovered it was on a day before it shut and evidently missed the transfer to Hampstead. A transfer to the Playhouse, Northumberland Avenue, seemed like a good bet and I would need to be in London on the day of one of the performances anyway.

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Faustus Must Be Damn’d

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (Directed by Paulette Randal, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

img_7197I’d managed to forget that Pauline McLynn was in this as Mephistopheles — which is just as well as I would have been channelling Mrs Doyle. “Ah will you not sell your soul, Father Dougal? Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on… Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” It does make sense in retrospect — she brings a grotesquery to the role, as well as a cat who has got the cream (with or without tea), as she knows what is to come. There is also a moment when she licks the knife Faustus has used to get blood to sign with — and I’m reminded of Gary Oldman’s Dracula licking Keannu Reeves’s Harker’s cut-throat razor. There is even a physical resemblance.

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It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

Alan Bennett, Allelujah (Br/dge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner)

Bennett has long since passed from tilter at the establishment to national treasure and still produces landmark plays with a political edge. Inevitably this is a late play — like all of us, he isn’t getting any younger — and like many of his works this has a public institution at its heart. It has a large almost ensemble cast and a closing series of monologues but, unlike The Lady in the Van and The Habit of Art it doesn’t really play metadramatic games. Those closing monologues remind me of Death of a Salesman — perhaps it is inevitable that a late play reminds me of lots of things.

At the heart of the play is the geriatric ward at the Bethlehem Hopsital in Yorkshire, which faces closure in favour of a larger hospital a number of miles away. As Colin (Samuel Barnett), a political adviser found with reasons to close the ward, comes to visit his dying father Joe (Jeff Rawle from Drop the Dead Donkey), some of the nurses and doctors have called in a documentary crew to film the geriatric choir that may yet save the place. Unfortunately, as the first act falls, a member of the hospital may well torpedo this plan.

One can’t help but feel that Bennett’s heart is — mostly — in the right place and the last forty years of government policies have jeopardised the success of a great national institution. Further, our paranoia about immigrants — and this play was written before the Windrush scandal broke — means that many of the workers in hospitals may not work for us much longer. But with singing and dancing oldsters we are in a fantasy land — how much is real and how much is what we want to see?

Suddenly I’m reminded of the social realist nostalgia of Terence Davies and the surreal memoir plays of Dennis Potter. The country may be going down the crapper, life may be shit, but at least you can have a sing song. When the geriatrics aren’t singing, their snappy dialogue seems like a dinnerladies reunion thirty years on, although perhaps Victoria Wood had been tuned by Bennett’s dialogue. The positioning of a song right at the end risks undercutting the play’s ending during the applause, as we are transported back to Victory Day and there is singing and dancing in the streets. We leave with a song in our hearts.

Three of the male characters may show where the play almost misfires, despite being an enjoyable and energetic evening. Firstly, the immigrant doctor, Ramesh (Manish Gandhi), whose immigrant status puts his career at state. You can’t help but be angry and this can’t help be political. Is he too angelic for the play’s own good? Meanwhile Colin, Joe’s gay son, is positioned as one of the play’s villains. At the same time, he’s lacking an arc. He arrives wanting the hospital closed and I didn’t get the sense of him learning anything, despite the trauma he goes through. He’s the son of a small town, born in the wrong culture, who managed to escape and he has been alienated and embittered by his experiences. But something is missing. Finally there is Andy (David Moorst), on the contemporary equivalent of the YTS, possibly a younger Colin, possibly a straight man in a small town that is more openminded than Colin gives it credit for. Too often he gets the cheap laugh. He is presented as the dim caretaker, risks performing clichés, unwittingly precipitates the crisis — and then vanishes largely from the narrative. he is not punished, he is not rewarded, he is not resolved, as closing monologues veer rather too much on the preaching, even if you disagree with the sermon.

The drama is dissipated.

There is laughter and there is sadness, but perhaps the game is too rigged.

Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.
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The Real Laura Barton

Rona Munro, My Name is Laura Barton (Directed by Richard Eyre, Br/dge Theatre)

There was some anxiety from several reviewers that Nightfall didn’t sufficiently fill the thrust stage of The Bridge Theatre. So they follow it up with a one-person monologue, performed by Laura Linney, adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Laura Barton. To make that feat more impressive, it is performed without interval, with a set that is little more than a hospital bed, a cabinet and a chair, plus a projection screen.

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