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Theatre Tip July 2012

You think that summer has got lost after a brilliant start in May. Well, it has just officially arrived! We have the summer seasons at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. In addition there is the Royal Shakespeare Company's annual summer season at the Roundhouse, Camden.

We'll start with the Open Air Theatre which has a very unusual musical. RAGTIME (until 8 September), is not your usual jolly musical, but a serious narrative of American immigrants in the early 20th century. Based on the novel by El Doctorow, we meet a WASP family, a black couple - a Harlem pianist called Coalhouse Walker and his girlfriend and baby - and a Latvian Jewish immigrant.

Although Timothy Sheader has a good track record for his musicals, the director finds it hard to turn the book into anything more than an illustrated lecture. However, there are some good songs, particularly those put across by Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker and Claudia Kariuki as his woman. The set is amazing, with piles of rubbish including a broken down car which is later moved to become a working model! A crane transports the Statue of Liberty and later a straitjacketed Houdini up and down in the air.

The Open Air Theatre is also showing an imaginative A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (until 8 September), directed by Matthew Dunster. Starting off in a Travellers' encampment we have some of the main characters displaying less than "proper" English. All are dressed in very up-to-date British fashion. A whole caravan is lifted up to reveal a hole from which Titania arises later with water spilling all around (yes, another water feature in a play; see the RSC's Tempest below). A fairy detaches himself from a large mobile home at the back. He has blended in so well with the décor of the van that he looked like a statue. Then the front of the caravan followed by the back open up to reveal a green grass area with flowers.

The rude Mechanicals are a group of workmen employed by Theseus and are dressed accordingly. Unfortunately I didn't see the little play they put on at the end when I went to review the show as it poured with rain at the interval and the production was abandoned! I look forward to a return visit to see the conclusion. I did, however, see the lovers in the wood and Rebecca Oldfield was particularly amusing as Helena as she wears very high shoes and, already tall, totters precariously along.

As usual the music is not only well composed, by Olly Fox here, but also fits the play exactly. The cast are miked, and need to be, given the loud noise from the wind! A poster at the back advertises "Athensfield by Oberon Developments, your new shopping experience." This is not your usual Dream, but gives an exciting version of Shakespeare's delightful play.

The RSC at the Roundhouse is putting on a themed season built around shipwreck and separation. THE COMEDY OF ERRORS and THE TEMPEST and TWELFTH NIGHT (in rep until 5 July then returning to Stratford from 12 July until 7 October) are all in modern dress with very unusual set designs and staging.

Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon in the Comedy of Errors

In The Comedy of Errors director Amir Nizar Zuabi has turned Ephesus - where the two Antipholus twins and their servants, twins who are both called Dromio, turn up - into a police state. Set in a kind of large warehouse in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, there are illegal immigrants in crates and water torture is used on the father of the separated twins.

A giant crane, which is used in all the plays in the Shipwreck Trilogy, is used here to great effect. Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes bring both humour and pathos to their portrayal of the twin Dromios.

The two actors appear again in The Tempest as the dissolute Stephano and Trinculo. Directed by David Farr, the set is dominated by a mirrored cube which is used to great effect to show the shipwrecked sailors and later the young couple Miranda and Ferdinand chastely playing chess. Jonathan Slinger is clear and moving as Prospero with an excellent look-alike Ariel, who is dressed to match him.

Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck. Following this the twins, Viola and Sebastian arise out of water, separately each believing the other drowned, at the front of the stage. Water features seem to be the prop of this year as we find them in a few other plays at the moment including Singing in the Rain and the Open Air Dream.

Teenage girls in the front two rows near the water screamed in delight each time somebody came out or fell in! Viola (Emily Taafe) is much shorter than her brother but manages to be a convincing male in her suit. She puts across her speeches in a simple but effective manner.

Jonathan Slinger's Malvolio sounds somewhat like Kenneth Williams but is moving, "I was adored once" as well as funny. He travels around in a mobility scooter with a sign on it saying, "For Management use only." He is a gifted actor and has managed both Prospero and Malvolio in an admirable way this season.

Director David Farr has used the design of the stage to great effect, employing different areas on the same stage. When I tell you these include a lift which actually goes up and down indicating which floor it is on and a revolving door with glass which allows us to see people come and go, you can imagine how spectacular this production is. And there is also a staircase which allows a departing Malvolio in a tightly strapped, buttocks bare, costume to make a slow tortuous exit!

When they come, they come in pairs…and so we have two versions of Shakespeare's HENRY V.

Theatre Delicatessen's Henry V

At Theatre Delicatessen (until 30 June) Roland Smith directs a most unusual production. The chief draw is the setting - a complex of disused studios in the basement of the old London headquarters of the BBC in Marylebone High Street, London. Set up as a barracks, members of the audience pass bunk beds in tiny rooms and finally enter the actual room where some of the audience sit on benches around a central table which they share with actors playing soldiers. Others sit on around the large hall on benches or sandbags (in my case a sandbag on a bench!).

Thus immersed in the action, we are able to view the King as a major figure of authority. In modern soldiers' uniform this Henry is very much of our time and the issues addressed in this modernised version are those which concern us all.

The sound is excellent - battles, a musical channel in the background and other noises connected with guns and blasts - are all very realistically achieved under the direction of Sound Designer, Fergus Waldron.

Philip Desmeules as King Henry V and the rest of the actors, who perform multiple roles, including women taking the part of soldiers, perform competently but there are no great actors on show here.

Almost the opposite is true of Shakespeare's Globe production (until 26 August), which has a very simple stage design and the acting takes pride of place. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre begins its season with HENRY V. Although at nearly three hours it is a long time to sit on a somewhat uncomfortable seat or stand (still only £5) as Groundlings, Jamie Parker's Henry makes the trip to this theatre well worth the journey. Director Dominic Dromgoole shows us Parker as a straightforwardly honest but also noble King.

The comedy, as usual at the Globe, is well to the fore and the audience laugh at all the bits they are supposed to. The play starts with two clerics using commodes on stage. Later, however, the place is quiet as we witness the terrible slaughter of the young Boy, just one of many young ones killed in the war with the French. The verse speaking is clear and well understood by the cosmopolitan audience. This is a good choice for Jubilee year: the audience joins in enthusiastically with "Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!"

Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe

Don't miss CHARIOTS OF FIRE (Hampstead Theatre until 16 June then at the Gielgud Theatre booking until 10 November), directed by Edward Hall in a lively production which depicts the characters with clarity, and uses the stage and auditorium to show great runs by the actors that leave one gasping as they whistle past your head!

Adapted for the stage by Mike Bartlett, the play is based on the original 1981 film. The same Colin Welland screenplay is used, but it seems to make more sense here, perhaps because we are able to concentrate on the dialogue in the many short scenes when speech is more important than action and are not distracted by visual images. The story follows the journey to the Paris Olympics of 1924. Harold Abrahams, the son of a Lithuanian Jew, is completely dedicated to winning.

James McArdle as Harold Abrahams and Nicholas Woodeson as Sam Mussabini

He puts up with the anti-semitism (sometimes expressed in an indirect manner, "With a name like Abrahams he won't be in the chapel choir.") of his fellow students as well as from the dons at Cambridge in order to achieve his success on the sports field. He is helped to victory by another outsider, Sam Mussabini (Nicholas Woodeson).

Eric Liddell is driven by his strong Christian faith. He is the son of a Scottish Missionary serving in China. His belief in following God's will leads him to refuse to take part in the 100 meters Olympic heat which is run on a Sunday. Eric's sister, Jennie Liddell (Natasha Broomfield) exhorts him to keep to God's laws. Lord Lindsey (Tam Williams) very kindly gives up his place in the 400 metres in order that Eric can still compete. There is a certain amount of rivalry between the two runners until finally Harold admits, "I was faster, but Eric was better."

The acting is not only of a high quality but all the younger members exhibit an astonishing athleticism. Short scenic scenes have been inherited from the film, but these work well in such a buoyant production. The theatre is set out as a stadium so that the actors literally run past you. The actors exercise before the start of the show and then they do choreographed moves to the music of Vangelis. As the girlfriend of Abrahams is a mezzo-soprano with the D'Oyly Carte, Hall uses this to bring Gilbert and Sullivan's music into some of the scenes. One of the hurdles races takes place to a chorus form The Pirates of Penzance! It is surprising that although we know the ending, watching this production still brings tears to our eyes.

Don't let this play suffer the fate of The King's Speech which closed early because people had seen the film and thought that was enough. Perhaps because the film is only having a re-issue in July, people will want to see the stage version. It is well worth the effort especially with the Olympic Games just around the corner.

Eight hours of The Great Gatsby might sound like a terrible marathon of theatre sitting, but in fact, it is truly great. The staging of GATZ (Noel Coward Theatre until 15 July) as part of LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) by New York's Elevator Repair Service has two short breaks and an hour-and-a-half meal break, and this staged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic American novel is exhilarating and only mildly bum-aching!

An office worker (Scott Shepherd) working in a drab office, is fed up when his computer doesn't work and picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby and begins to read it aloud. He doesn't stop until he has read the last word aloud. As he reads, he moves around the room, carrying the book with him. Gradually the other workers around him begin to join in by taking the parts of the characters he is reading and acting them out, putting in the dialogue from the book.

left to right, Kate Scelsa, Scott Shepherd, Lucy Taylor,Mike Iveson in 'Gatz'

The office worker is Nick the narrator and the quiet chap sitting opposite him becomes Jay Gatsby. Somehow director John Collins keeps the rhythm of Scott Fitzgerald's words and manages to conjure up pictures of what the narrator describes.

The setting is merely an ordinary office with boxes of files on shelves at one side, a settee at the back and a kitchen glimpsed at the far back. Yet this set becomes the glamorous house of Gatsby and the setting for a party organised by Tom Buchanan (Gary Wilmes), here portrayed as the selfish bully with a materialistic bent, that Fitzgerald intended us to see. The people at the party and wild fun are shown by the scattering of papers. Later the papers are cleared tidily away for a more sedate gathering. The jazz music, although evocative, was sometimes too loud to let us hear the speech. There are good sound effects, controlled by a member of the company from the side of the stage, and it is impossible to miss the sound of the fatal car crash. The "Boarder" (who stays permanently at Gatsby's home) plays an imaginary piano and sings in a good a capello voice.

A golf playing postal worker becomes Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol) and brings the upper class professional player to life. Lucy Taylor, playing a blonde fanciable office employee, is most appealing as Daisy Buchanan., who is described by Gatsby as "Her voice was full money." The other parts are equally well personified and the main ideas of the novel are clearly illustrated - the rich life of the pleasure seeking Buchanans and the striving to revive a past that Gatsby remembers as perfect. In spite of having just sat through eight hours of the novelist I immediately set about getting a copy to read! Unmissable.

The day after seeing Gatz I spent nine hours (including breaks) watching DRUID MURPHY at the Hampstead Theatre, London (until 30 June and the touring until 20 October to New York, Galway and other parts of Ireland, Oxford, Dublin and Washington) present three plays by an Irish writer, Tom Murphy, hitherto unknown to me.

In fact director, Garry Hines insists that they are not a trilogy but three separate plays that Murphy wrote over 25 years. The press saw them all on one day, but, unlike Gatz, they can be happily enjoyed separately on different days. Murphy himself notes a thread running through all three, that of emigration.

The first play Conversations on a Homecoming sees Michael (Marty Rea) returning home to a small village on County Galway in the West Of Ireland in the 1970s after 10 years away. Michael has been working as an actor in New York but has nothing of great interest to impart. He meets up with old friends but it is not the sweet reunion Michael had imagined.

The second play, A Whistle in the Dark sees Michael Carney (Marty Rea)living in Coventry, England in 1960. He is an Irish immigrant married to the English Betty (Eileen Walsh). His three brothers have already dumped themselves on him and when his father (a wonderful performance by Niall Buggy) arrives with his youngest brother the stage is set for a revival of childhood animosity, abusive treatment from Michael's father and violence towards outsiders.

The final play, Famine takes us right back to 1846 in County Mayo, West of Ireland. It is the time of the potato famine and we see how the extreme poverty affects this small rural community living in Glanconnor Village. As the community faces starvation, their landlords believe they have the solution - pay the villagers to emigrate. But John Connor (Brian Doherty) refuses.

Some amusing lines in the first play but not many in the second, and I certainly can't recall any at all in Famine. A wonderful array of talent from Druid combined with superb writing makes these plays of separation, emigration and the spirit of Ireland a must-see.

Also seen in the past month: THE HARD BOILED EGG AND THE WASP (The Lion & The Unicorn, Kentish Town, London until 10 June, but hoping for a further tour), an original musical about the legendary comedian Dan Leno. Written and directed by Jonathan Kidd and Andy Street, it tells how Leno was confined to a lunatic asylum by his wife. Because he gets really bad headaches the surgeons suggest surgery on his brain. Funny with tender undertones, this deserves a longer run.

A combination of stereotypes and over-acting - both Asian and English - hide the talents that are obviously within the musical WAH! WAH! GIRLS at the Peacock Theatre, London. This is a Bollywood plus British mixture which, unfortunately, doesn't quite work although there is some good dancing and the simple, although a little wavy, sets are bright and attractive.

TWO ROSES FOR RICHARD 111 (Roundhouse Theatre), was the first of the RSC's presentations at the Roundhouse this year. Directed by Claudio Baltar and Fabio Ferreira it showcase the Brazilian company, Bufomecanuca's imaginative use of acting, music, circus and aerial skills to give their unique take on Shakespeare's play. Presented in Portuguese some of the English subtitles appeared and disappeared too quickly to follow - it certainly helped to know the play! An exotic and totally different show.

And MARY SHELLEY (Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn until 7 July) should be on your list for theatre visits. A potted history of Mary Godwin meeting Percy Shelley at 16, falling madly in love with him and eloping against the wishes of her father who fears for her as Shelley already has a wife and baby with another on the way. An excellent production by Polly Teale for Shared Experience brings the story of the young woman who wrote Frankenstein to life.

Carlie Newman

 

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