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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Waiting for Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (directed by David Leveaux, Old Vic, cinema relay)

This is a haunted play and I suspect only partly deliberately. I saw the Mark Arden-Stephen Frost-Lionel Blair version at Nottingham Playhouse thirty years ago, which was I now realise a twentieth anniversary of its profession debut at the Old Vic in 1967 after a 1966 Edinburgh Fringe run. It is a play that weaves in and out of Hamlet in an ingenious way — the backstage to the main plot as it were. And every time I see Hamlet, I feel that it is a play full of quotations… even leaving aside any debt to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and an ur-Hamlet.

But it is also Samuel Beckett — the two tramps who are passing time, Waiting for Godot, visited by Lucky and Pozzo, philosophising. And playing games. In Beckett’s play there is a reaching for a deeper meaning, at least on the part of the audience, but without the sense of quite what that is. Not only that, but once we see the barrels on board ship, I am transported back to Happy Days (1961), with characters in barrels.

It might be a young man’s play, with effortless riffing on probability (a coin landing heads ninety times), chaos theory (a hint at the butterfly effect) and other scientific ideas, but there’s also thinking about death, what real death is, whether it can be represented rather than known, the nature of memory. Seeing it again, possibly fifteen years after I saw Stoppard’s intriguing film version with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, twenty years or more after having last read it, I am struck by the cleverness of the structure, the thematic unities between the first and second half (although I think this production moves the interval — certainly Stoppard has done rewrites). The coin toss game leads to the which-hand-is-it-in giving Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) the chance to give back some of the money he won from Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) at the start of the play. And the looking in barrels for people is somewhere between find the lady and Schrödinger’s cat.

So here we have Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz — the box office gold, although it may be depressing that Stoppard needs a star as draw. Radcliffe wants to show his acting chops — even as he disguises them under an actorly beard. He’s done Equus, another classic, another play where it is hard to place the author’s own point of view. It would be easy to be uncharitable, and here I certainly had the sense he was the weak link. Arden and Frost were a double act, I could almost imagine Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis playing the roles (there’s even a physical resemblance) and I think there’s an instinctive camaraderie that is needed to get the timing pitch perfect. Perhaps it was the distraction of the cameras, but in the first act at least he seemed not quite on cue. It doesn’t help that he is in the dimmer role — his vacant, smiling, rabbit in the headlights seemed a little one note. In the second act he hit his stride — there is more action to set against, and there was a louder audience reaction, even an awww.

His costar, Josh McGuire, is undoubtedly stronger, but table tennis needs two great players. I’ve looked him up, and I don’t remember him from the things he’s in that I have seen. He’s more obvious comic, also a little camp, and at times seems to be acting as the director (of the play of “life”?) in a way I don’t recall from earlier viewings.

In the short film tour of the Old Vic that preceded the play, he is the lead compared to Radcliffe, whom both Chris and I noted was never looking at the camera. Is this the celeb who has learned not to make eye contact? Real shyness as himself? Would the play work if the casting were to be reversed? Radcliffe, the star, as Rosencrantz is the supporting part to a minor role.

I suspect there was a severe rake to the stage, because the other actors towered over them at times. Chris was reminded of The Lord of the Rings and there was a visual affinity to Frodo and Sam — with Radcliffe as Sam. That leaves the idea of Ian McKellen as the Player, here played by David Haig.

Haig is best known as sitcom actor and the Richard Curtis “comedies”, but I have seen him in Chichester’s play version of Yes, Prime Minister as Jim Hacker against Henry Goodman’s Sir Humphrey, foregrounding his insecurities and pettiness against the oily superiority. There is little insecurity here, though, even as the Player craves the audience. He is the cockney actor manager, tough, full of the gift of the gab, and oddly sexually ambivalent — here I think Stoppard has added a few more sexual touches to a play first professionally performed in the year that homosexuality was partially decriminalised. Alfred (Matthew Durkan) as the boy act forced to cross dress rather steals his scenes.

The cast of the main play of Hamlet feel a little slight, and I was slightly confused by the choice of a black actor (Wil Johnson) as Claudius, uncle and now father to a very pale Hamlet (Luke Mullins). Colour blind casting? I guess he and Hamlet sr could be half brothers or… I don’t know, it seemed an odd distraction. Did Theo Ogundipe double as Horatio (son of the white Polonius) and Fortinbrass? Or am I foolish to look for realism in this play?

But, yes, the play took wing towards the end and the relationship between the leads finally fell into place. The creative director of the Old Vic tells he always chooses plays which are politically meaningful, and it is in that second act that we get the lines about not placing faith in England:

Rosencrantz: I don’t believe in it anyway.
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: England.
Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?

The words of the almost thirty-year-old Stoppard, né Tomáš Straussler, clearly in love with the language and clearly not afraid to take on the masters of the English theatre.