Tuesday 27 August 2013

Guest Blog:The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Take Two)

I've been considering inviting a guest on my blog for a while and when Livvy came back from London having seen 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' for the second time this year, I wanted to know why she found it so compelling. She is my daughter, by the way, and a drama student, you can find her on twitter @livvy_leigh. So here (drum roll) are her thoughts...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Theatre in its Prime
Having won seven Olivier Awards, reams of four and five-star reviews and countless other accolades, Simon Stephens’ and Marianne Elliott’s staggering stage translation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ at the Apollo certainly lives up to and beyond the hype. In what is a very true adaptation of Haddon’s novel, the audience are introduced to the complex, comic and at times very difficult world of Christopher Boone (Luke Treadaway/Johnny Gibbon), a 15-year old boy with ‘behavioural problems’ consistent with Asperger’s syndrome. Detached from the ‘confusing’ people around him, Christopher enjoys maths, outer space and being on his own. His world revolves around logic and reasoning, and he is unable to understand jokes or metaphors. In what is a hugely enjoyable production in terms of both its creative staging and first-rate acting, the protagonist attempts to uncover the mystery of the murder of his neighbour’s dog, inadvertently embarking on a journey which in turn reveals a number of truths a lot closer to home.

The joy of this play is that we gain an insight into Christopher’s very private world; his eccentricities and the workings of his astonishing mind. Stephens overcomes the difficulties presented by the fact that the story is told entirely by Christopher using the character of Siobhan (Niamh Cusack), his teacher, as the main narrator of a book he is writing for a school project. This divorce of story-telling from the action is instrumental in creating moments of both comedy and immense tension – particularly when Christopher discovers a box of hidden letters in his father’s bedroom. This device allows Treadaway to inhabit the protagonist with an incredible and perfect intensity, as well as creating fantastically comic moments delivered by peripheral characters.

The physicality of the entire performance is awe-inspiring. Choreographed by Frantic Assembly, the ensemble performs incredibly fast-paced and demanding routines, most memorably when Christopher has to tackle a bustling Paddington and the tube. Here he is spun, held vertically as he walks across the sidewall and flipped several times by busy and expressionless London commuters. The movement devised is a perfect visual allegory for the intrusive and overwhelming sensory environment Christopher finds himself in, not only as someone on the autistic spectrum but as a young boy in an alien location too. Back home in Swindon, the most physical contact Christopher can tolerate is meeting his palm with his father’s, so the contrast in physicality between these two locations really does reinforce the assault on his senses that he suffers in London. Life is horribly messy, Christopher discovers, and the portrayal of the capital city exemplifies this.

Then there’s the set. Organised like a magnificent grid complete with co-ordinates, Bunny Christie’s design is a delightful manifestation of Christopher’s ordered and mathematical world. Props emerge from the floor and several cupboards are disguised in the walls of the set, contributing to a very exciting and intense routine in which Christopher builds a mammoth train-track near the end of the first act. Settings are created through the simple use of lighting and wooden boxes (as well as members of the ensemble!), and projections appear on the walls which make the performance very immersive. At one point the dimensions of the set even change - the stage’s back wall surging forwards - and this really effectively displays how unstable the world is for Christopher.

There’s no weak link in any of the cast’s performances – each role is acted with a faultless and entirely believable intensity. Sean Gleeson and Holly Aird’s performances as struggling parents Ed and Judy are fantastic and very true – they are not saint-like; they are flawed and at points just as confused about everything as Christopher. Judy’s desperation really is heart-wrenching, although her monologues are extremely lengthy. Tilly Tremayne’s comic timing as the elderly and benevolent Mrs Alexander is spot-on, especially when she informs Christopher of his mother’s affair with Mr Shears. And then there’s Luke Treadaway. It’s rare to come away from a play unable to imagine what an actor is like outside of the role they are in, but Treadaway is so entirely convincing from his unique intonation of speech and repetition of prime numbers to his constant fiddling of his hoodie-strings that he really does achieve this. He times comic moments perfectly, especially when Christopher inadvertently mimics those around him. His manic assembling of the train-tracks and the ‘episode’ which follows are remarkably powerful and breathtaking to watch. You don’t need me to tell you this, but his performance is one entirely deserving of its Olivier award.

Not to be overlooked is Johnny Gibbon’s outstanding performance as the alternate lead. He too is utterly convincing as the 15 year-old Christopher and tackles the role, which is hugely physically and emotionally demanding, like a seasoned professional despite it being his west-end debut and is thoroughly deserving of high acclaim for his performance.

This adaptation of Haddon’s break-through book is a triumph and one which should appeal to everyone – because really this play isn’t just about a boy on the autistic spectrum. Stephens’ writing and Elliott’s direction emphasise that it’s about anyone who has experienced difference and difficulty; our individual eccentricities and how we overcome the problems that life, confusing at the best of times, presents us with.

PS. Listen to Siobhan and stay after the curtain-call!

The original Olivier award-winning west-end cast have less than a week of performances left.  150 £12 tickets are available on the day from 10 am at the box office and with a full house almost every night this is your best chance of seeing them before they finish. The new run commences on 2nd September with Mike Noble leading the promising new cast.

Pictures taken from www.curiousonstage.com by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg and Johnny Gibbon

Monday 26 August 2013

The Way, Way Back (12A) - review

The Way, Way Back opens with a car journey, as fourteen year old Duncan (Liam James) and his mom Pam (Toni Collette) travel with her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter to Trent's holiday home in Massachusetts. As the other passengers doze, Trent looks into his rear view mirror and asks Duncan how he rates himself on a scale of one to ten. Duncan is physically and mentally isolated at the other end of the station wagon and his mumbled reply, together with Trent's belligerent response (based on a conversation which one of the film's writer/directors Jim Rash actually had with his own step-father), sets the tone eloquently for turbulence ahead. Duncan is gauche and introverted and Pam, though concerned for the welfare of her son, places far greater emphasis on the importance of her new relationship with Trent.

This has the makings of a holiday from hell for Duncan, complete with the dysfunctional family next door, comprising hard drinking divorcee Betty (Allison Janney who really gets her teeth into this role) and her teenage children, plus a circle of other emotionally baggage-laden neighbours who've been holidaying in the same spot for years.

Things are looking grim until Duncan discovers a bike in Trent's garage and uses it to explore his surroundings, chancing upon the Water Wizz water park. Here he meets up with Owen (Sam Rockwell) who runs the park and his motley band of employees, a haphazard crew who nevertheless provide a far more nurturing environment than Duncan finds at home.

Trent perceives Duncan not so much as a child but as a rival for Pam's affection, leaving it for Owen to step in and fill the paternal void. As the adults in his family descend into a feckless abandonment of responsibility, a desperate last chance grasping of happiness, Duncan begins to accept responsibility for his life at the water park and develops a disarmingly hesitant relationship with the girl-next-door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

Like its predecessor Little Miss Sunshine, The Way, Way Back was applauded on its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and is distributed by Fox Searchlight pictures. Although more upbeat and less anarchic, the film's tone and themes, revolving around uprooted and fractured family life, are achingly familiar to Little Miss Sunshine devotees. Duncan's character reprises much of Dwayne's gradual and often painful emergence from the adolescent chrysalis and Carell and Collette are present once again, this time cast as lovers rather than siblings. For all its tensions and bittersweet poignancy, The Way, Way Back is peppered with amusing moments, particularly any scene involving Sam Rockwell or Allison Janney.

Steve Carell was so important to the writing/directing team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who appear as two members of staff at Water Wizz) that they moved location to be nearer to him and it's good to see him taking on a darker role. Toni Collette is as reliable a central character as ever, although this is hardly a stretch for her she's still a joy to watch. And, as the children often display far greater maturity than the adults, Liam Parker portrays Duncan with great authenticity, so much so that you cannot help reaching out to him in his excruciating awkwardness and applauding his initiative to relocate his heart.

Like all good narratives, we end as we began in the car, but this time there's a difference. For all it's familiar themes, The Way Way Back is funny, tender, engaging and hopeful - a film I'll happily be watching again.

I saw The Way, Way Back at the The Little Theatre Cinema, Bath, it opens in cinemas on August 28th 2013
All pictures courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Fences at the Duchess Theatre - do believe the hype

So much praise has been heaped on Lenny Henry during his transformation from comic to serious actor, but despite the accolades I've been curiously reluctant to watch him in his new guise. To me, Lenny is Theophilus P Wildebeeste, one of a host of funny, wild-eyed and overblown caricatures. So I feared not only could this reincarnation be a bit of a gimmick, but also his larger-than-life presence would overshadow his character and distract from the rest of the play.

Fences by August Wilson is a departure from Lenny's previous dramatic outings in Shakespeare, the story of Troy Maxson, a black garbage collector in Pittsburgh and gifted baseball player who could have made it in the major league if not for his colour and the deprivation of his background. Instead, Troy has bought a house with the proceeds of a payout to his younger brother Gabriel who was injured in the war, and is settled there with his wife Rose and son Cory. As the play opens he arrives home with his best friend Jim Bono, drinking on the veranda as Rose busies herself with their dinner.

Despite the initial high spirits of a Friday night, Troy emerges as a troubled character, burdened by the responsibilities of raising a family and keeping a roof over their heads, discriminated against at work and frightened at the prospect of death. It appears at first he has a lovingly physical relationship with Rose, but all is not as it seems. What is clear from the beginning, however, is that Troy has difficulty in accepting his children's choices, in particular resenting his younger son Cory's talent as a football player and chance of a college scholarship. Nothing came of Troy's sporting talent and he's certain his son is wasting his time too, angered by Cory's lack of focus on work and chores, which include helping to finish the fence being erected around the Maxson property.

August Wilson's ten Pittsburgh plays are each part of a cycle relating to a different decade of the 20th century. Fences is set in the 1950s, an era still dominated by racial segregation and although it was written in the 1980s, when some of the worst excesses of discrimination had arguably been dismantled, many audiences might still have lacked understanding that a black garbage collector could have an interior life. The play, with it's undertones of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, was a great success, winning a Pulitzer Prize when performed on Broadway with James Earle Jones in the role of Troy. A 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington, large shoes indeed for Lenny Henry to fill in this Theatre Royal Bath production of a very American play.

Fortunately Lenny has big feet, as fill those shoes he does in a riveting and measured performance which encompasses all the light and shade of one man's torment. After the first couple of minutes, I completely forgot I was watching anybody but Troy Maxson, a man with plenty to say. As he veers from exuberant banter to challenging the Grim Reaper to moments of naked and painful revelation, Lenny is more than equal to the task of portraying a big man often brought low, a self-reliant survivor who is often harsh with his family and justifies his own weaknesses without any recognition of the loyalty he's accepted as his right. And so he builds a fence, slowly and haphazardly, to keep his family in or to keep the world away.

There are lighter moments but with so much raw emotion, it's not unexpected that this play is sometimes unbalanced and so central is Troy that it can drag when he's not commanding the stage. But there are other very solid performances too, most notably Tanya Moodie as Rose and Colin McFarlane as Jim Bono. Libby Watson's set is enchanting, allowing glimpses of characters approaching on the path or busy around the house, although this is occasionally distracting - as when Rose took so long to peel a couple of apples that I became entirely fixated on her pie at the expense of the narrative. And the ending too is protracted, one which I rehearsed several times in my mind before it eventually arrived. But without doubt, this is a hugely enjoyable and moving production, one for which Lenny Henry, no longer the comic but a serious actor in a leading role, deserves every second of his solo bow.

Fences opened at the Theatre Royal Bath on 20th February 2013 and is currently at the Duchess Theatre in London.

Monday 12 August 2013

King Lear at the Theatre Royal, Bath

Any play directed by Lucy Bailey promises a bold creative vision and King Lear, part of the Theatre Royal Bath's 2013 summer season, is no exception. Shakespeare's epic tragedy of family betrayal opens in a typical 1960s London east end pub with chain-smoking sharp-suited gangsters and their thuggish skinhead lackeys. I haven't seen Lear performed before (another tick for my own pretty epic Shakespearean bucket list), so had no preconceived ideas to work with, but the scene was immediately set for an intriguing interpretation of a familiar, oft-told tale.

Old King Lear has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, on condition that they each describe how much they love him. Goneril and Regan are fulsome and fluent in their praise and it's only Cordelia, his youngest, who hesitates to put her love into words. Lear flies into a rage and disinherits her, dividing what would have been Cordelia's land between her two siblings. Fortunately, one of Cordelia's suitors the King of France is still willing to marry her and they leave together. Lear soon discovers the false love of his two older daughters and pays dearly for his erroneous judgement. As Goneril and Regan conspire to deny him his courtiers and his remaining power, the King begins to lose his mind.

The sub plot meanwhile involves another family conflict between the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund and the legitimate Edgar. Edmund convinces his father that his heir is plotting against him and to save himself Edgar is forced on the run, disguising himself as a deranged and homeless beggar, Poor Tom.

David Haig is commanding as Lear, convincingly enraged by his daughters' behaviour, vulnerable and touchingly believable as he descends into madness and wanders adrift in a storm before eventually being rescued by Cordelia. Paul Shelley is also adept as Gloucester, the other father all too easily deceived by his treacherous offspring, blind to Edmund's faults and later blinded by a vicious attack from Regan's henchmen because of his decision to help Lear.

Edgar (William Postlethwaite) initially appears so innocently bumbling and bookish that it's difficult to believe his father would think he could do him any harm. Postlethwaite more than makes up for this though with Edgar's stunning transformation into Poor Tom, a nearly naked gutter philosopher smeared in grime.

Bailey's sixties gangland setting is an inspired choice for the turf wars and seething malevolence of this play with Lear, his family and retinue of courtiers dressed in the style of the Kray twins. Albany (Daniel Weyman) and Cornwall (Samuel Oatley) are threateningly mob-like and Samuel Edmund-Cook is sexily menacing as Edmund. The staging by William Dudley, incorporating images projected on to suspended gauze flats, is striking, particularly in the opening scene and later when Goneril deprives her father of his remaining power. If anyone it is Lear himself who is sometimes slightly at odds with this vision, the otherwise magnificent David Haig perhaps just a little too cuddly despite his sixties suit and slicked back hair. And while Goneril (Aislin McGuckin) and Reagan (Fiona Glascott) parade themselves somewhat two-dimensionally as brittle gangster molls, Cordelia (Fiona Button) is dressed as though she's on her way to an anachronistic S Club party, her difference over-telegraphed by sneakers, jeans and a snow-white top.

Lear wanders into the storm and the stripping away of the scenery emphasizes his increasing isolation. The play draws towards its powerful and bloody conclusion and it becomes more difficult to recognise the time frame because the violence of the thugs could belong to almost any era. This version of King Lear is not flawless and the opinions I have heard of it have been divided, but it reinforces the universal nature of Shakespeare's themes. In turn harrowing, shocking, funny and moving, this is an ambitious and memorable production from Lucy Bailey and the Theatre Royal Bath team.

Pictures courtesy of the Theatre Royal Bath. King Lear completed its run at the theatre on Saturday, 10th August 2013.