Tag Archives: theatre review

Chiwetel Ejiofor is EVERYMAN

If you are walking around Bankside at night and see an imposing figure talking to himself about life and death, it could be Chiwetel Ejiofor rehearsing his lines for Everyman – the National Theatre’s new production directed by Rufus Norris, with a fresh script by Carol Ann Duffy.

In discussion with Mark Lawson on the Olivier stage before the evening performance, the actor explained that, after each show, he strives to identify where he could improve and extract the best performance – eager to examine all the possibilities and avoid regrets after the play’s run ends. So, he revisits the lines on his way home after the show. And what an absolute pleasure it must be – even after several performances – to mouth Carol Ann Duffy’s ingenious weave of modern expressions, songs, images and medieval manner and rhyme. You can tell she had a hoot reworking the old anonymous classic for a new audience.

The hero – Everyman, or ‘Ev’ – is a City wheeler-dealer. We meet him at his drug-and-alcohol-fuelled 40th birthday party. After his friends are long gone and he is left alone, collapsed in a stupor, he is challenged by Death to a reckoning with God before his number is up. His journey in the play then becomes a frantic fleeing, escaping Death by attempting to confront his life and repair the damage done.

Ev is used to justifying his actions by the amounts of cash he has accumulated, buying friends along the way. The one thing he finds he cannot buy is time on this earth. In one of the standout scenes, he ventures to a department store and tries to convince the team of gold-plated personal shoppers that his fistful of credit cards should be enough to guarantee his soul – “Come on, the customer is always right!” he pleads before they throw him out. Like his drug-fuelled lifestyle, Ev’s credit has maxed out and he is low on loyalty points to God, the planet, family and fellow man too.

I love the way Duffy takes the opportunity to carve for posterity some of today’s measures of wealth – the list for high-flyers includes private health insurance. She makes this play as confrontational as the original would have been to its deeply religious audience back in the 1500s – even the most agnostic viewer will twinge at the questions about charity-giving, damage caused to the planet and the guilt of perhaps leaving it too long to make that phone call home to check up on elderly parents and long-suffering siblings. She even has a go at religion pondering hopefully that, like other man-made entities, it too will pass.

As Ev, Ejiofor finely juggles the balance between Cityboy prat that he has become and the bright young boy on the scooter that he once was. Confronted by Death towards the end, he expounds each of his senses and what he’d miss of the world. It is truly moving. In hot pursuit, Dermot Crowley’s Death – dressed in white plastic coroner’s scrubs – manages to be menacing and hilarious at the same time – in a sort of Monty-Python-meets-Mrs-Brown sort of way.

From the opening scene where Ev crashes to his death from the rooftop of the nightclub (Ejiofor says that, luckily, he is not scared of heights when he is in character!) his life flashing before him on giant, neon billboards, there were many scenes that deserved a round of applause. And, to my mind, the lifeless NT crowd were too quiet and let this performance down. That is, until the end scene when Death points his finger out at us all – “Eenie, meanie, minee, moe.” Who will be next? That shook ‘em up!

I’d love to see this play at Shakespeare’s Globe where I’m sure the audience would participate and give the energy that Lawson and Ejiofor had discussed as being crucial to a play’s life. Meantime, the NT is the venue and this play must be seen for Ejiofor’s performance and heard for Duffy’s words.

Cheers for now, Beth


Postcard from London – January 2013 – A quartet of Sir Tom Courtenay

Former RADA boy, Sir Tom Courtenay, took to the stage at the small 150-seater RADA Screen cinema for a Q&A after a screening of Quartet.

Sir Tom appears not to like answering questions about himself. Then, he doesn’t appear to like answering questions about any one else in the Quartet cast either. But he does seem to like talking about Dustin Hoffman, Quartet’s director, and some of the other luminary actors he has appeared with over the years – Sir Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Michael Williams – and some of his early mentors at RADA.

There are four sides to this confounding and complex actor.

1. Impersonator par excellence

During the course of the chat, he manages to bring to life on stage the spirits of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Michael Williams and Dustin Hoffman.

A chance question about method acting raised a hilarious story about Dustin Hoffman dealing with Sir Larry on the set of Marathon Man. According to Hoffman, director John Schlesinger was unsure of how to approach ‘the world’s greatest living actor’ to tell him to tone down his performance a notch. Hoffman stepped in to coerce Sir Larry with some fleet of foot flattery which had the desired effect.

You feel that if someone could structure a one-man show around the characters Courtenay has met and worked with across the years, it would be a warm and funny way to spend a couple of hours. Highly entertaining and enlightening. But, you get the feeling that Courtenay would never allow it.

When advising the young Tom on how to survive the humiliation of working with actors who may be more popular and successful but who you think is not up to your standard, you feel that Sir Tom would heed the sage words of Sir Alec who said: ‘One learns to keep one’s trap shut!’

2. Grumpy old luvvie

When asked by a young RADA student what advice he has for young actors starting out: ‘Think again. Really.’ He spoke about the gaps in between jobs and then the disappointment when a pet project falls flat – as his one-man show did in New York. He obviously has not forgiven the Americans for not ‘getting’ his show.

3. Bright young brat

While Courtenay is an old RADA boy, he seemed highly uncomfortable with the whole episode of being back at his old school, and the nearby College where he started out, enrolling only to be near to RADA anyway and spent all his time at the Drama Society keeping a check on the competition in RADA’s halls before being accepted himself a few years later. He said he’d spent five years all told at both educational establishments. And he didn’t seem to enthuse over much learning he’d done there – most of the stage techniques fell by the wayside as the tide turned and parts ‘for Northern boys like me’ started turning up in films.

His lack of similar success to contemporaries like Finney, Bates and Caine is said to be of his own choosing. Instead of tackling London’s West End, Courtenay went to Manchester and worked in small theatres like the Royal Exchange. He never courted Hollywood either.

While he feels guilty at his success, he envies those who have taken the Hollywood parts and made a success of it – something he tried but didn’t like. ‘I couldn’t get on in LA,’ he said, ‘You can’t walk there. You go for a walk, you get arrested.’ But then he revealed the envy when talking about a part he’d recently turned down. ‘I just didn’t think the part was real enough. Someone else took it. I think they were nominated for an Academy Award. Ha! I don’t know why I’m laughing.’

And, like most actors, with his excess of self-confessed arrogance comes a good helping of insecurity. He still feels like he has not achieved success as an actor. A young girl asked him if there was a performance where he feels he has achieved that success. He said it was on stage in ‘Moscow Stations’ as the drunken Venichka Yerofeev en route to Moscow. In that character’s despair Courtenay said he found the truth.

And getting to the truth seems to be the key to his idea of successful acting. He felt he didn’t do it in his early film roles, including Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I can only shake my head incredulously. Perhaps Sir Tom should let his audience, or his directors, decide when those moments have been reached. I’m sure we could sit down with Dustin Hoffman and agree on several moments in Quartet alone.

4. Artist ready to retire

Someone asks a sensible question about the renewed popularity of films featuring older actors and whether he thinks this is an optimistic trend. He flinches at the mention of the Marigold Hotel saying ‘I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel it was real.’ And, ‘well, it’s not up to me to say really. I hope so, I’d like to be optimistic.’ Nevertheless, he tried to explain the recent trend for stories about older characters. ‘When I finished drama school and was looking for work, all the Northern and working class writers were coming up and the same for the actors. Now all the writers are older, that is what they are writing about. That’s just what happens.’

An audience member commented that Pauline Collins character was her favourite and the only one who addressed the realities of growing old. Tom was dumbfounded: ‘Well, what do you want me to say? She is very good. It was my idea to cast her in that role.’

He enjoyed talking about the process of making the movie. ‘When I was younger I used to hate all the sitting around on a film set. I thought it was a waste of time. Now it’s my favourite part.’

He was on much more comfortable ground talking about the director, Dustin Hoffman. ‘Dustin is the real hero of the piece. He made it happen.’ And his Hoffman impersonation is superb, capturing the energy of the man and his ‘pocket dynamo’ personality. How did Hoffman deal with the many real musicians and singers who are extras in the cast?

Courtenay holds his arms up at right angles and makes a screen that frames his head and neck. ‘Dustin said to them: See this – this is all there is. Be still and say the words.’ Great screen acting advice for those of a dramatic persuasion who have never acted on screen before.

 ‘Can we finish?’ he squirms signalling his wish. And so, the session ends.

Cheers for now, Beth


Postcard from London – August 2011 – The vitals of revivals

My hairdresser on Dean Street is a star establishment – this week they moved my appointment so I could squeeze in a sneaky 5.30pm performance of Betrayal at the Comedy Theatre. And this is not the only classic revival taking place – a short walk around the corner at the Haymarket you can see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Stoppard (which I did, recently).  Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, this 1966 black comedy is starting to show signs of age. Perhaps we’ve seen too many imitations and this surreal style of comedy has dated. Chris Andrew Mellon, who stepped in to fill the boots of Tim Curry as The Player, is the standout, maximising his short time on stage. It’s an excellent and enjoyable production, but, like the play-within-a-play setting, something is amiss. We are not supposed to distinguish between R and G– they mix up their own names in fact – but it starts to feel strained when the performance tones of Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett sound the same as well.  I love these two former History Boys; they are quite something. The potential is clear, but perhaps their relative inexperience leaves them a little lost and unsure. It’s as if Stoppard hands them ice-skates, but then places them in a snow drift on a very thin rollercoaster frame – they struggle to stay on track. The repetitions of phrases and words that make Betrayal so strong seem shaky and uncertain here.

And so – to Betrayal. Pinter’s 1978 piece has lost none of its power. If Stoppard left his actors on skates, Pinter gives his performers a solid safety seat in which to speed to their confrontations with betrayals of trust, friendship and self. Pinter’s words and gaps provide a stable tracking, allowing his actors to shine – provided they know where to tweak the nuts and bolts and add a squeak of oil. Director, Ian Rickson, must be very happy indeed with his cast. Kristin Scott Thomas is as pitch-perfect as finely cut crystal – cool but sympathetic as the woman surrounded by men, but in need of love. Ben Miles provides the punch of the archetypal Pinter alpha-male, and Douglas Henshall is as warm as a whisky chaser embodying everyone’s ‘best man’ – caught as much in mateship as in love.  

While Stoppard has us hovering around the fringes of existentialism, Pinter hones right in on the heart – reasons to revisit the genius of both writers. You have until the end of August – and you could see both plays the same afternoon, provided you don’t have a clandestine meeting or hairdressing appointment.  Right! I’m off, and, having dealt with that retro-revival, I think I should ask for a brand new do. What do you think?

Cheers for now, Beth


The start of forever … truly modern dance with Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at Sadler’s Wells, London, July 2011

It’s the UK Summer. So, what are we seeking – Sun? Yes! Time? Yes! Relaxation? Not necessarily. What most people long for is something to sweep the cobwebs away – an edginess and restlessness – the feeling from Summer holidays past that this is the start of something fresh with endless possibilities. Ash summed up the clear rapturous romance of Summer best in their song Oh Yeah: ‘It felt just like it was the start of forever …’

And now I’ve found a company of artists who, after a winter tinged with doom and gloom, have the energy to inject a summer sting – to awaken our senses after months of wayward inactivity and aching shade. Hofesh Shechter is my new remedy of choice – seek a good dose of him and his dance company: take as often as you can, and sit or stand wherever you can.

A dancer and choreographer who also composes his own music (percussion studies in Tel Aviv and Paris) Hofesh uses his Israeli background, experience in Europe and 10 years in London to draw inspiration to create his own unique forms of dance and music. It is exciting, group work. Using an international mix of dancers, Hofesh steers the inherent power of numbers moving in unison and then the sheer explosive energy of going against the grain to create memorable visions. He fixes a mosaic of different dance styles onto a mirrored glitter ball reflecting the theme of people’s oppression overcome.

With a company of 16 dancers and a band of 23 musicians on a mix of classical and electric instruments – 9 of them drummers on everything from military snares to gigantic Taiko drums – this feels more like a Summer rock festival than a dance recital. And with standing room only at the front near the stage, that is exactly the point – to get the audience involved and shaken up. An immediate standing ovation and scream of glee that almost blew away the ceiling at Sadler’s Wells, clearly signal that Hofesh achieved the reaction he was hoping for.

Hofesh Shechter Company are in Melbourne for the Festival in October – get your hands on some tickets now and experience the start of forever in modern dance.

Cheers for now, Beth Keehn

Postcard from London – Jersey Boys – Oh what a night! March 2011

Jersey Boys: the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

It seems like Jersey Boys has been playing at the Prince Edward Theatre for years. I’ve walked past it just about every other week while taking the shortcut through from Denmark Street to Bar Italia on Frith Street or my hairdresser’s on Dean Street – the songs of Franki and the boys pumping out onto Old Compton Street to compete with the surrounding buzz, the ticket touts trying to convince the passing tourist trade to take their chance and see the show.

So, why have I resisted this show for so long? Well, to start with, who knows anything about the Four Seasons? You’d recognize Franki Valli but you could be sitting beside one of the Four Seasons and not know it. Then, the price of a hit show – even the cheap seats ain’t that cheap, if ya know what I mean. And when you visit the show’s website, it is overloaded with promotional videos, phone apps, competitions and special offers: it’s a commercial cacophony, not unlike the mix of Four Seasons songs which, although great, always remind me of 1970s slumber parties when my mates and I would be stuck listening to the local radio for sustenance.   

But I have to admit, once you actually commit to the show, these niggling weaknesses all turn into strengths. It’s great that you don’t know a thing about the band’s story; that holds your interest in a straightforward narration of the chain of events. The art deco glamour and glitz of the wonderfully opulent theatre make you feel like you’ve invested good money in an extravagant treat; just the remedy we need in these boring and depressing times of austerity. And the commercial nature of the songs is what makes the show toe-tappingly infectious, especially when performed by a live band.

And what a band! I thought the cast of The Buddy Holly Story were talented. This cast gives them a run for their money – and then some. I defy even the inclusion of the pop star cred of Jon Lee to top the cast I saw – notably Ryan Molloy as Franki, Matthew Wycliffe as Bob Gaudio, Jon Boydon as Tommy De Vito and Eugene McCoy as Nick Massi. These guys are so talented I didn’t even realise they were all from the UK and NOT from New Jersey.

So, lessons learned: sometimes the hype is there for a reason, and sometimes you shouldn’t tar ALL 1970s hits with the same brush – ya know what I mean?

Cheers for now, Beth 

Postcard from London – Candid, cool, crooner: Nick Cave, November 2009

“This is not as rehearsed as it looks!” quips Nick Cave as he struggles to find his place while reading from a jumble of photocopied pages of his new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, on a dark stage backlit by video projections. Earlier he’d beseeched the stage manager to locate a particular set of lyrics, only to find that the handy, laminated sheet was within arm’s reach on top of his piano all along. A sly aside to the crowd: ‘My memory’s not what it used to be: I blame the Eighties,’ he explains. Cave’s candour and coolness has the crowd on side. And the fact that this performance is a somewhat informal affair, temporarily taking over residence from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, at The Palace Theatre for only two Sunday nights, means that all is forgotten and forgiven.

In an evening that promised to be ‘intimate and strange’, Cave was joined on stage by Grinderman and Bad Seeds buddies, Warren Ellis (drums, guitar, violin, gizmos and effects) and Martyn Casey (bass) for an eclectic selection of musical numbers from their combined back catalogues. The early performance of ‘West Country Girl’ particularly resonated when Cave bravely challenged the crowd to ask him any question they like and one fan cried out: ‘If Polly Jean Harvey were in the audience tonight, would you invite her onto the stage to sing?’ Quickly recovering from a slight chink in his coolness, Cave replies: ‘Ah, well, of course, but I don’t know if Polly Jean is here tonight. Is she?’ Indeed she was, in a balcony box overlooking the stage. And so, after some coercion (and location of the appropriate lyric sheet) she ventured onto the stage to perform with Cave the duet ‘Henry Lee’. The fans went wild and this impromptu performance (the pair were too visibly nervous for it to have been a set up) was a definite highlight. Other crowd-pleasers include: ‘God is in the house’, ‘Tupelo’, ‘The weeping song’ and ‘Grinderman’ with its eeriness evoking ‘The End’ and showing that Cave can croon as well as Jim Morrison any day.

A given virtuoso in the musical world – as well as his near 20-album collection, Cave has written soundtracks for The Assassination of Jesse James, The Proposition, and the upcoming The Road (now available on a double album, White Lunar) – Cave has re-entered the literary scene in a roundabout way. After writing And the Ass saw the Angel 20 years ago (that is not a typo!) Cave said he had no desire to write another novel. He didn’t even have an interest in screenwriting until fellow Aussie, Director, John Hillcoat (Ghosts of the Civil Dead, The Road) asked him to pen the screenplay for The Proposition. As a follow-up for Hillcoat, Cave said he wrote something called ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’ which, subsequently, no studio was willing to touch. Languishing in the bottom drawer, this unproduced work started to bug Cave big-time. He says he is not the sort of writer who has boxes of half-finished work sitting in piles surrounding him. He couldn’t stand that. He works on one creation at a time, often taking weeks to complete one song before moving on to the next piece. (No prizes for guessing that Cave is a Virgo!) Anyway, that script became the basis for the new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, first draft completed, he claims, in a marathon six weeks, due in part to the excellent foundation that the script provided.

I’ve been listening to the enhanced audio book – downloadable as an application for iPhone and iTouch. As well as the e-book text, the application includes the author’s reading of the book, along with some evocative music from Ellis, a 3-D ‘spatial mix’ soundscape of audio effects, and video clips of Cave’s readings. The words are superbly chosen, with Cave’s lexicon deftly handling horror as well as humour, and the audio enhancements suit the cinematic nature of the piece (how soon before an independent producer wakes up and green-lights the movie?) Cave claims to be a technophobe and says he has ‘no idea’ how the ‘app’ works, but you get the idea that this publishing project, and theatrical happening is an example of the best collision of old forms and new technology. The crash could open up a new Renaissance for those artists cool enough and brave enough to explore the possibilities. Cave has already shown us he’s ready for anything.

Cheers for now, Beth

Postcard from London – Jerusalem: a new Royal Court cult comedy classic, August 2009

The questioning nature of the opening stanzas of William Blake’s song, Jerusalem, means that, as well as gracing the finale of many a Proms as the ultimate patriotic anthem, the song has also been used to shade darker, more ironic questions of blind jingoism:

And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God / On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine / Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?

And so opens Jez Butterworth’s new comedy take on those themes in his own, Jerusalem. As a huge St George’s cross graces the stage curtain of the Royal Court, the audience is plunged straight into a late-night rave party, deep in England’s green and pleasant land in the guise of ‘Flintock’ in Wiltshire. It’s the eve of the local fair and our guide is the inimitable Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, staking his claim to ‘Rooster’s Wood’ by conducting an ongoing feud with the local council to protect his mobile home from demolition in the wake of a new, modern estate. Johnny is our guide to the poetry of the woodlands – the giants and the green man of myth. But is he connected to the land, or just a layabout who can’t be asked to pay his council tax? He used to be a motorcycle dare-devil at the local fairs but now he’s just pushing chemical thrills to the local kids. Is he really a harmless local character banned from every pub in town, or is his character altogether more devilish?

In Rooster, Butterworth has created a classic British comedy character, and it’s a gift of a part for Mark Rylance, last seen as a Tony-award-winner for ‘Boeing Boeing’ and before that, a string of successful Shakespearean roles during his residency as Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe. This character unleashes the most colourful expletives, poetry, jokes, tall tales, true pathos and bloody violence. You love him one minute and hate him the next. He is a rogue, a gypsy, a pagan wild man, noble Knight and a kind of Robin Hood all rolled into one. Yet, there’s no doubt he is a drug-dealing waster who attracts too many underage teenagers to his caravan, one of whom he has fathered a child with in the past. It’s an outstanding performance by Rylance, another award-winner, and no doubt the reason why I had to queue for two hours for a return ticket – this production was sold out from the first week!

Surrounding Rooster is a fantastic array of unique comic characters who allow Butterworth to play around with themes that anyone from a small town will recognise: Davey refuses to be interested in anyone or anything outside his local borough jurisdiction, especially not in Wales; Lee is off to seek his adventure in Australia; the Professor looms around in a kind of happy haze of dementia; Ginger is hopelessly ambitious, desperate to muscle in on the local heroes to become the new DJ of choice; and Phaedra may or may not be seeking refuge in Rooster’s caravan from an abusive father.

Ginger, the only candidate for Rooster’s would-be ‘best friend’, is played with outstanding aplomb by the wonderful Mackenzie Crook (last seen on stage in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, on screen in those Pirate movies, and on TV in an unforgettable gangster role in ‘Skins’). Far from another dipsy ‘Gareth’ (of ‘The Office’ fame) Crook shows the depths of his talent by making this character real, with real feelings, but real failings too. This style is picked up by all the very talented young cast, superbly directed by Ian Rickson (veteran of nearly 20 shows for the Royal Court) who deftly balances cartoonish comedy with heart-plunging drama! Quite a feat in a play of three acts, over three hours long. The audience gave a unanimous standing ovation in response (including actor Michael Sheen who was on the receiving end of some hilarious joke-milking from Rylance as Rooster recounted one of his over-the-top tales directly to the crowd).

Jerusalem is a new cult comic classic and I only hope someone has the sense to capture it on DVD or film-for-TV because its writing, characters and performances will soon join the canon of much-whispered-about dramaturgic deliberations for decades to come.

Cheers for now, Beth