I don't remember ever chuckling at The Cherry Orchard quite like I did at the Tobacco Factory Theatre on Thursday. Director Andrew Hilton has teased out the wit in Chekhov's play of posh folk with money troubles, cranking up the melodrama and throwing in some physical humour to boot.
It not only gives the play a lighter touch - in a good way - but makes it all the more entertaining and engaging for it.
The Cherry Orchard isn't a favourite play of mine, as I've mentioned before here, and my irritation with the central characters' inaction remains but in making their deportment so ridiculous it heightens the sense of futility that is at the heart of their behaviour. There is also a warmth in their behaviour you suspect that, deep down, they are aware of their silliness and foibles but it binds them together.
Julia Hills' Ranevskaya has a charm that makes you believe her Paris apartment would be crowded with gentlemen callers and Simon Armstrong's Lopakhin is shrewd but not cold and portrays a genuine warmth and affection for Ranevskaya and her family.
This is my third Lear and I’m gradually growing fond of this Shakespeare tragedy.
The first time I saw it, with Ian McKellan in the eponymous role, the King's scheming and bitchy daughters Goneril and Regan were just too abhorrent, I couldn’t wait for them to get their just desserts. And as for Lear himself, he too, I felt, got just what he deserved.
I don't mind an out an out baddie but for the goodies to stay loyal there has to be something to empathise with, you have to believe that what they are doing is right and worthy. This, and perhaps hindsight from watching subsequent productions, brought out the tragedy of the story far more for me than the first version with McKellan.
This quality production from the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company sees John Shrapnel take on the lead, giving him that initial stubborn pride that sets him on the path to destruction but then gradually peeling away the layers of corrupted power to reveal a vulnerable old man.
Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) while fawning over their father when he initially asks for their declarations of love seem ill-judged rather than calculating. Their darker motives appear gradually as their confidence in their new found power grows into a delicious coldness and increasingly rash decision-making.
Shakespeare's dialogue is delivered by all with great clarity which is always a treat - only in some of the action sequences and during the storm in the second half does some of the dialogue get swallowed up by the surroundings.
If for nothing else but the costumes and wigs, playing the character of Witwoud in The Way of the World, for Samuel Barnett, must be heaps of fun. As well as modern spins on frock coats, ruffled cuffs and a rather fetching striped onesie complete with night cap he also gets to wear a towering restoration-era wig (see trailer below).
Barnett's costumes are just some of a delightful array worn by the cast in what is a hybrid modern/traditional take on the William Congreve's play of bright young things on the make through the institution of marriage.
Don't ask me to give a summary of the plot because I'm not sure I could recount the intricacies (director Lyndsey Turner confesses to getting a lawyer friend to help unravel the family tree and deeds), needless to say there is a lot of plotting and duping but it all ends satisfactorily with the 'not quite goodies' outwitting the 'not quite baddies' and then there is a jolly good dance.
The journey to get to the dance is a fun and clever. Set against a white back drop the characters explode on stage in colours only matched by their sharp wit and charm.
The opening sequence is imaginatively set in a TV studio where Mirabell's (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) daily life is unveiled in the style of a pop video. The resulting video then makes an appearance in the second half as two characters sing along to it, karaoke style. It is a nice touch serving to illustrate the ridiculous nature and an element of disrespect felt by all the central characters.
Indeed it is a play about how ridiculous those of privilege and wealth have become, so ridiculous in fact that they rely entirely on subterfuge and deceit to get by.
Not a single cast member puts a foot wrong be it gold winkle-picker or platformed stiletto. Special mention should go to Mr Barnett's flamboyant Witwoud, Leo Bill's scarily angry Fainall and the wonderful Deborah Findlay as the vain and gullible Lady Wishfort.
I know we are getting extra helpings of Shakespeare, what with it being the cultural Olympiad and all that but it feels like all the plays I'm particularly excited about seeing this year were written by the bard.
Then there is The Globe which has tempted me to part with hard-earned cash at what is my least favourite theatre by putting the fabulous Mark Rylance on its stage playing Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night. And then not only adding Samual Barnett and Johnny Flynn to the cast list but now Stephen Fry is to play Malvolio.
And before I get to see most of that I have what is bound to be a wonderful treat, Propeller's A Winter's Tale and Henry V at the Hampstead Theatre. Propeller's 2011 offerings of Richard III and Comedy of Errors both ended up in my top 5 plays of the year so there is much anticipation.
I'm always excited about everything I see at the theatre but I can't think of anything else outside these Shakespeare's that have quite the same level of elevated anticipation. If at least two don't make it into my top 10 for 2012 I'll be very surprised.
Here's a promo vid the RSC has made for a trio of plays it's calling the Shipwreck trilogy of which The Tempest forms a part
It means there is lots of space and plenty of pre-show seating outside the glass auditorium. Certainly no feeling of being crammed into a small space that is the intersection between the bar, loos and sweet counter like the West End. Inside the auditorium surrounds the stage with three tiers. Front row seats are low and sofa-like which is right up my street.
In fact I got to enjoy the 'sofa' in the second half as I nabbed a vacant spot during the interval to get away from the rather large gent blocking my view from my third row seat (trials and tribs of being 5ft 2).
It's been nearly two weeks since I made my first trip to Chichester and a combination of indolence, sickness and general busyness has stood between me and my keyboard. The problem is that now that much time has passed my memory of this double bill of short plays has started to fade.
Not that they weren't very accomplished pieces of theatre, they were both superbly directed and acted pieces. I suppose what I mean is they are going to be memorable more as pieces attached to my first outing to Chichester than purely as plays in their own right.
Firstly the two work brilliantly together but then David Hare's South Down's was written to accompany Rattigan's The Browning Version. Both are set in public schools in the 1950s/60s both playwrights having gone to public schools themselves.
South Downs centre's on pupil John Blakemore (Alex Lawther) who is hyper intelligent, precocious and deemed odd by the other boys. While The Browning Version centre's on teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Nicholas Farrell) who is reluctantly retiring with no pension.
Both explore self identity and loneliness. Blakemore questions his inability to fit in with the rest of the boys and Crocker-Harris, worn down by years of academic grind and living in a loveless marriage questions his reputation among his pupils and his wider purpose.
If I was pressed to give a preference then it would be South Downs because it more easily transcended the period in which it is set. That and the fact that Lawther showed great promise in his professional debut.
Although I must mention Crocker-Harris's wife Millie played by Anna Chancellor who in a moment of vicious tongue-lashing is so cruel to her husband it raised a gasp from the audience.
This double bill is definitely worth a trip to Chichester to see and is booking until October 8. I'm going to give them a joint four stars.
Wow, what a bumper month July turned out to be, five plays earned five star reviews, although one of those was a second visit to see Propeller's Richard III which I'd already given top rating to. The remaining nine plays I saw got four stars apart from one which let the side down considerably. Shame on you Woman Killed with Kindness at the National Theatre and your 2 star, 35% score.
2. The Pride, Sheffield Crucible - loved it when I saw it in New York with my fav Ben Whishaw and didn't think it could be topped but the cast in Sheffield proved me wrong and reminded me that Mr W aside, it is a cracking good play 85%
July's run of five star plays is a record for this year but unfortunately the one two star review dragged the average down and February still remains my top month - but only just.
August has had a slow start - even a theatre addict needs to ease off once in while - but it is to be short lived and next week, breaking my New Year's resolution for the second time, I'm seeing three plays in three days.
Of those and the rest I have booked, the ones I'm particularly excited about are Kevin Spacey's Richard III, Anna Christie at the Donmar and Broken Glass at the Tricycle which will be my first visit there. Bring it on.
I love Alexi Kaye Campbell's play about life as gay men in the 1958 vs 2008 but confess this production had a slight disadvantage from the outset - the last version I saw was in New York with Stan-fav Ben Whishaw playing Oliver.
This production the Crucible's studio space is directed by Richard Wilson (who decided to look in on the performance with Merlin pal Colin Morgan) and has a slightly older cast than the New York version.
Initially a voice in my head screamed, 'it's not going to work as well' but it did and heightened that sense of time running out for the characters as Poly so correctly observed.
Daniel Evans takes on Oliver in this production with Jamie Sives playing Philip, Claire Price - Sylvia and Jay Simpson the miscellaneous extra parts but perhaps I should explain the story a little first.
The play is set in 1958 and 2008, swapping act by act between the two periods. In 1958 Philip is a children's writer who has commissioned Sylvia to illustrate his book. Sylvia invites him to dinner with her husband Philip and there is an immediate but subtle connection between the two.
In 2008, Philip has just left Oliver after the discovery of yet another infidelity and Sylvia is their best friend. Oliver is taking the split badly.
It is at times a deliciously funny play; the 2008 Nazi role-playing scene and Oliver's meeting with a lads-mag editor keen to show the publication is gay-friendly are worth the ticket price alone. But it is also a moving piece which at its heart explores loneliness and fear of being alone.
We are charging into February and a chocolate box rammed full of theatre delights but before January becomes a dim and distant memory, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on some of its offerings.
I have my (nerdy) new spread sheet to help me and while I rate each play in my review out of five, I also give it mark out of 100 on the spread sheet - it makes it a hell of lot easier to rank stuff. So this is based on those scores with links to my original reviews:
So am I surprised by the results? Well yes and no. Vernon coming out top isn't too much of a surprise as I saw the original production back in 2007 and really enjoyed it. But I am surprised that Twelfth Night rated so low considering how much it had going for it: Peter Hall directing and the likes of Simon Callow in the cast. It just fell flat which was a real shame.
One thing that is interesting, to me anyway, about rating the plays I see in this way is that it means you get shoestring budget production like Comedy of Errors at the Greenwich Playhouse scoring higher than the polished and luxurious production of Twelfth Night. The acting was better in the latter, by far, but I enjoyed Comedy of Errors more. It just goes to show that money and big names aren't necessarily everything.
Not surprised that Get Santa! came out so low but that is because it really wasn't my type of thing and I'm judging it on that rather than the fact that it was a bad play and production.
The play that I'd say sticks most in my mind after Vernon, I have to say is The Boy James mainly because it was an interactive piece in a unique setting.
So that was January. February has already got off to a roaring start with Julius Caesar and last nights Our Private Life which I will be writing up very soon...
This time Stanley Townsend took the part of Eddie. I last saw him on stage in the wonderful Tribes at the Royal Court and although he certainly made an impression it wasn’t the meatiest of roles. Eddie is a filet steak of a role. He’s an over protective uncle in 1950’s Brooklyn who wants a better life for his niece Catherine (Kirsty Mackay) but who’s familial love is boiling a little close to the edge.
At first his reluctance to let Catherine take a job and go out into the world seems more to do with his inability to accept that she is growing up, that his father role is coming to an end. When Rodolpho and Marco, two Italian cousin’s of his wife Bea’s come to stay while working illegally and love blossoms between Rodolpho and Catherine, Eddie’s protectiveness unleashes deeper rooted feelings.
It’s a great story of a bear of man, with a good heart but who is cornered by his own pride and feelings and ends up doing something that goes against everything he stands for. So did Townsend and the Lyceum do it justice?