Sunday, 6 November 2011

Collaborators at the National Theatre

Our little theatre-going group has developed a bit of a thing for Simon Russell Beale. We’ve loved him in every role we’ve seen him in, from the rich, opportunist gentleman in London Assurance, to a weak-willed academic in The Philanthropist. He seems to have a capacity to completely encapsulate the character he plays, from the hair on his head to his little toe. His facial expressions are truly magnificent - he can send an audience into uncontrollable hilarity with just the raise of an eyebrow. As Stalin in last night's play, Collaborators, he was both scary, charming, funny and pathetic - everything you'd imagine a truly disturbing and disturbed dictator would be. 

But the triumph of National Theatre’s production of Collaborators can’t be put down to one man’s performance alone; excellent as it was.

Firstly the play is brilliantly written by John Hodge. It opens with an excellent dream sequence where our struggling Russian playwright, Mikhail Bulgakov, expertly played by Alex Jennings, is being chased – and caught – by Stalin. The first dialogue sees Bulgakov lie to his wife that this time in his recurring dream he had caught and killed the dictator. 

This lie – or piece of self-delusion – sets the scene for the whole play. With his work banned from the Moscow theatre, Bulgakov is asked by the authorities to write a play about Stalin. He refuses, but is brutally convinced by an officer of the NKVD (secret police, played by Mark Addy) to take on the task. 

The plot with its inevitable march towards disaster, has funny as well as tragic turns, as the hero is made to struggle with his conscience: can he surrender his artistic integrity for basic human needs such as fresh fruit, coffee, hot water, and a the safety of those he loves?  

During the course of the play, he meets Stalin (Russell Beale), himself. Their roles in life are reversed, with tragic consequences.

The set, which remains the same throughout the two and a half hour play, is cleverly designed so that when the actors walk around and underneath several platforms, the action too moves from room to room.  

But beyond the obvious message of Collaborators - that Stalin indeed was a devious and brutal dictator - the play also begs the question, who’s more to blame for the failure of a political system, the liberal artists who oppose and criticise current leadership, or those in power who are the ones who have to make the vital - often impossible - decisions on the lives of the 'ordinary' people.  

Just like Bulgakov’s play within the play, set in the 17th century about Moliere, was really a commentary about the time he was living in, so can this production of Collaborators easily be seen as a critique on modern times.

Who amongst the politicians, the journalists, the critics and the demonstrators controls whom? And would any of them have done a better job of avoiding wars, third world famine, or even the current economic crisis? 

Cottesloe at the National Theatre
South Bank
London SE1 9PX
For tickets from 31st January booking opens on 23rd November
Runs until 31 March 2012  

Monday, 15 August 2011

Jude Law in Anna Christie at Donmar Warehouse

Ruth Wilson as Anna Christie. Photo: Johan Persson 
Normally when posting these theatre reviews I try to be quite professional about it - I guess my days at the BBC are difficult to shake off. But OH MY GOD seeing Jude Law in Anna Christie changed all that. I cannot hide my delight at his performance. Or...his physique.

Briefly, the play is about a young woman and her estranged sailor father (David Hayman), set in America in the 1920's. It is a serious story about serious issues of abandonment, self-respect, sexism and trust. The plot is wonderful; the set, depicting the closeness of the sea, brilliant; the acting excellent.

I saw all this and felt very fortunate to have got such good seats (via our trusted 'theatre agent' friend), and during the first half and hour or so, was paying close attention to the Swedish (not so good) and American (better) accents displayed. I was even beginning to see how the sea did indeed play a big part in the play, just as expressed by one reviewer I'd read before the evening.

All this until Jude Law burst onto the scene. He climbed out of the water and dropped onto the deck of the scooner like a roaring sea lion, gloriously wet and scantily clad.

Jude Law. Photo: 
Mr Law completely stole the show. Ruth Wilson as Anna Christie was smouldering enough while secretive about her past. Her father - played by David Hayman - remained stubbornly (and selfishly) ignorant of any problems her long-lost daughter might have. Hayman's poor Swedish accent took much away from his performance for me - I could not believe in his character and had I not been so mesmerised by Law, as the young sailor falling in love with Wilson, it would really have spoiled the play for me.

Anna Christie is a powerful play. I only wish I could have given all the actors equal attention, but then I am only human after all...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

This was my first time at Shakespeare's 'faithfully reconstructed open-air playhouse' in London's South Bank. We've been meaning to go for years, but for some reason never got around to it. Since we now live in the city, there seemed to be no excuse, especially as this production by Jeremy Herrin starred the talented Eve Best (of King's Speech, The Shadow Line and Nurse Jackie) as the sharp-tongued and quick-witted Beatrice.

Eve Best as Beatrice. Photo The Telegraph
The venue, the site of Shakespeare's theatre, which was originally built in 1599 is worth seeing in its own right, and it was obvious some of the teenagers in their school uniforms would have been happier with a quick tour of the place rather then seeing a whole play. Many a time during the three-hour performance I saw a couple of girls being led away from the doorway by a teacher turned security guard as they tried to leave the auditorium below. The poor youngsters felt the full force of a British summer too; it rained on several occasions, forcing the audience standing in the 'yard' to shelter under their plastic capes.

The modern entrance to The Globe

The Globe as seen from the banks of The Thames
There were many tourists too; it was a full house during a Tuesday afternoon matinee. We had seats in the front row of the upper gallery, the third tier of the theatre. I'd be lying if I said the seats, even with the addition of the rented cushions, were comfortable, but the quality of production was such that the three hours just flew by.

At the interval the sun shone on us.
Both Eve Best as Beatrice and her sparring partner, Benedick played by Charles Edwards, held the audience in the palms of their hands as they fired intelligent insults at each other, while both disclosing to the audience that the wit was there only to shield their hearts from hurt. When a trick is played upon the two reluctant lovers, convincing them of the other's passion, their eventual happy reunion is sincere and moving.

Eve Best and Charles Edwards. Photo The Telegraph.
A sudden tragic turn of the play, when Beatrice's cousin is wrongly accused of infidelity by her groom on their wedding day, hits the audience very hard indeed. Beatrice asks her new found love to kill the former fiance. When Benedick, with a heavy heart, agrees to the task, the audience, who just a few moments ago had been roaring with laughter, falls silent.

Eve Best (Beatrice) Ony Uhiara (Hero) Helen Weir (Ursala) Photo: ©Alastair Muir via The Telegraph
As well as intelligent words the play also included some not so excellent comedy acts. I know it's all part and parcel of the play in its original form to have a sketch in the middle, but here I felt Paul Hunter's fool of a sherif act with strange gestures and a dumb, dishevelled army just didn't work.

As a whole, though, this production at The Globe of Much Ado About Nothing, was a huge success. The design of the stage, with pools of water at the edge, a garden and large wooden doors at the back, was perfectly evocative of an Italian village circa 1600. Together with the costumes and music, the atmosphere made you feel as if you'd been transported to Elizabethan times.

I definitely want go back to The Globe - it may be too late for this season but certainly for the next one starting in April 2012.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Opera: Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne

The cast of Don Giovanni  Photo Glyndebourne

Mozart’s operas are usually fairly jolly affairs – by opera standards – and Don Giovanni, even though it deals with pretty tragic themes (rape, murder) is basically comic in character. Even so, when the wronged Donna Anna (Albina Shagimuratova) discovers her father is dead and begins her aria in the vast, luxurious theatre at Glyndebourne, tears started running down my cheeks. Crying during opera is an affliction I inherited from my mother, and however much I try, I cannot get rid of.  

Putting my silly weeping during operas aside, my first visit to Glyndebourne was a huge success. We were fortunate that the organising had been done for us by a dear friend – all the Englishman and I had to do was to be ready outside our door late Sunday morning. 

Even the train journey from Victoria and back was fairly painless, and the buses were waiting outside the station at Lewis to take us to the house and gardens at Glyndebourne as planned. 

I’d been fretting about what to wear – did I need wedges for the grass, would it be too cold and rainy for my long dress (‘it’s customary to wear black tie for men and long or short dresses for women’ the Glyndebourne site advised). I envied the Englishman for his simple choice of a black tie; why is there not a similar (although boring) alternative for women? However, there was a little mishap with Englishman's slightly tight dinner suit trousers - he's had the same suit for a few years now - but less said about that the better.

Blue skies at Glyndebourne

But you can see it wasn't terribly warm...

In the end I wore a Hobbs black and white maxi dress with a shrug and a black Marimekko jacket which I've had for more years than I can remember, together with white patent NW3 wedges. It was a good choice - I was warm outside and when inside just had to peel off a layer or two.

There was rain as the train pulled into Gatwick; after that the skies were bright. Even the brisk wind didn't worry us, because in honour of a birthday amidst our party, for the long interval (they know how to organise these events in the UK to maximise enjoyment!) we'd booked a table at the Middle and Over Wallop restaurant, which for the duration of the opera festival has been taken over by Albert Roux, OBE.  

I was astonished and honoured when at the end of a fantastic meal of asparagus, lobster and strawberries, and while sipping the rest of our vintage champagne, who else but the famed chef himself, supported by a cane, came and talked to a few of the guests – including us! I was so awe struck I didn’t even think about taking pictures, but it was incredible to talk to a man who, together with his brother, is responsible for such a food revolution in Britain.

Still, even food cooked by a master came second in the enjoyment stakes on the day, because Don Giovanni with London Philharmonic Orchestra was outstanding in every way. Firstly the staging was fantastic and suited the opera's dark themes to a tee. A gigantic pandora’s box of a set transformed itself from darkened streets, to the lavish rooms for Don Giovanni’s orgy, to a dark, sinister graveyard, and finally to a table set for a meal with a ghost. There was even a proper fire at the end of the Act I - it was just incredible!

As for the cast; their voices were incredibly polished – as I mentioned before I was particularly impressed by Albina Shagimuratova who sang the role of Donna Anna, but Lucas Meachem in the role of Don Giovanni should also receive a mention. His character who has to be both cruel, ruthless and seductive, demands incredible vocal attributes together with good acting skills. He has to invite the audience’s wrath as well as earn a secret admiration for his total lack of morals. Don Giovanni has to be a good 'baddie'. Same must be said for Matthew Rose who played Leporello, Don Giovanni’s trusted servant. His character, which is mainly comic, also has a serious side. He has the conscience which his master completely lacks.

When comparing different operas I've often cited Tosca, which we saw at La Bastille in Paris many, many years ago as the best I've ever seen. I'm afraid Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne trumps this by a mile. It was world class opera at its best.

Glyndebourne is screening some of the performances live in cinemas throughout UK this summer:

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg by Richard Wagner on 26 June 2011
The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten on 21 August 2011
Don Giovanni (recorded 2010) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 31 July 2011  

If you like opera you could do worse than go to one of these screenings - I think I'm going to see if I can get a ticket to the 2010 version of Don Giovanni.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Cherry Orchard at National Theatre, London

Zoe Wanamaker in The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
This play cast such a spell over me on Friday night that I was still thinking about it as I opened my eyes Saturday morning. But then that is how Chekhov - done well - usually affects me.

I remember the first time I saw The Seagull at Kansallisteatteri (Finnish National Theatre) in Helsinki. I must have been about nineteen and I went on my own because my then boyfriend wasn't at all interested in theatre. I'd seen many plays before with my mother - I was born in Tampere which had a strong socialist theatre culture - but this Chekhov production blew me away. That night sitting in the dark theatre on my own, re-ignited my desire to become an actress, something I'd dreamed about all my childhood. For a few weeks I regretted my sensible choice of study, economics, but soon the bitter reality of life's limited choices hit me and I forgot about my arty ambitions.

Which is what Chekhov's Cherry Orchard is largely about: what is it that is important in life? Is it money, love or something higher - a responsibility to society and to other human beings? In this new version of the play by Andrew Upton, Zoe Wanamaker plays Ranyevskaya, the flamboyant owner of the Cherry Orchard which is under threat because of the debts this life-loving woman has incurred in Paris. She refuses to 'see sense' (unlike me at nineteen; more's the pity) and join a money-making scheme provided by a nouveau riche son of a serf turned merchant, Lopakhin (Conleth Hill). He wants to develop the land and build holiday homes on the Cherry Orchard. But Ranyevskaya cannot see that times are changing, 'Don't talk to me about money,' she says. Of course this deluded upper class attitude is her downfall.

Lopakhin on his part fails in something much more important: when faced with the chance for happiness he cannot bring himself to grab it. He truly believes money will bring happiness, however much people like the eternal student and philosopher, Petya Trofimov (Mark Bonnar), try to convince him otherwise. But even the tutor, Petya, is misguided; he thinks he's beyond trivial human emotions. Yet, while he's busy philosophising, he's also falling madly in love with Ranyevkaya's beautiful daughter, Anya (Charity Wakefield).

Last night made me again realise what a brilliant writer Chekov was. The same issues of love, power and society that affected people in Russia of the early 20th century, and which cut so deeply into my being thirty years ago, still resonate today.

Upton's new version brings Chekhov's dialogue up to date in a way that makes the interaction between the characters not just passionate but also funny. There's even a joke about the banking crisis when the batty uncle, Ranyevskaya's brother, Gaev, (played by James Laurenson) hears that he could borrow money to pay interest on their debts and then borrow some more to pay the interest on the second loan and so carry on indefinitely, 'It's easy,' he says. As a final irony, he later becomes a banker.

The human frailties which Chekhov excels in writing about are portrayed equally competently by the actors of this production. Wanamaker is singularly brilliant but her supporting cast are at least equal to her in their performances. The sets too are broodingly beautiful; the lighting alone should receive a prize. I was completely convinced I was in an old crumbling Russian Dacha and not sitting in the stalls of a central London theatre.

The set at the beginning of the second act.
I just wish I'd had the senselessness of Ranyevskaya at nineteen...ce la vie, eh?

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov at The Olivier, National Theatre, London.
Opening 17 May 2011.
Length about 2 hours 55 minutes with one interval.
On 30th June 20111 The Cherry Orchard will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Frankenstein at the London National Theatre

People were taking in the late afternoon sun outside The National Theatre
There is something I need to get off my chest first regarding Danny Boyle's Frankenstein: the nudity.

The play opens with the birth - or emergence - of the Creature made by the 'mad' scientist, Victor Frankenstein. The Creature performs a series of very impressive physical moves  - naked. This sequence which lasts for some ten, fifteen minutes, has the actor lying face down on the floor with his legs spread, or standing fully doubled over with his back to the audience, or running around the stage in elation at being able to move. It's a beautiful and demanding part to play, and on the night we went we were lucky enough to have Benedict Cumberbatch do it. He and Jonny Lee Miller take turns between the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein, and I've heard Miller is excellent too.

Cumberbatch and Miller Photo

The nudity was full on; the audience got to see every intimate detail of Mr Cumberbatch's fit body. Sex sells tickets, so sadly nudity scenes are often included in plays when there is absolutely no need for them, but here the play very much demanded it. And watching Cumberbatch struggling to 'come alive' naked wasn't at all sexy. At times it was painful, at times funny and at times sad, but never titillating.

The whole of the naked opening sequence set the scene for the dark themes that the play examined, and the tragic fate that the 'unnatural' creation of life brought everyone who came into contact with the Creature.

Miller's Frankenstein, the clever, but slightly autistic scientist, is in trouble from the start: he is the first human to reject the Creature and abandons him. After being beaten up by other humans he comes in contact with, the Creature finally finds someone who can accept him; a blind, retired teacher. The kind old man gives him language and teaches him human emotions such as love and longing. Here I think the script excels, suddenly the Creature becomes more articulate and deeper thinking than his teacher, 'Why can't I be King?' he asks. The poor teacher has no answer apart from assurances that one day he will be happy. This simple question echoes the changing times that the play is set in, 'Why aren't all men equal?' 

However, the teacher's family cannot accept the Creature and instil in him the one emotion that he comes to trust more than any other; hate. But first a beautiful dream gives him hope and the Creature decides to look for his creator, Frankenstein. If some-one is capable of loving him, or giving him some-one - a female Creature - to love, surely it should be his own creator?

Things go from bad to worse for both the Creature and Frankenstein, and while the plot thickens the audience is held on the edge of their seats. The play is nearly two and a half hours long and has no interval, and it could have done with a break. But I can see why Boyle decided not to put one in - the tension of the plot would have suffered from a break. 

This was a big spectacle of a play, with the set design playing almost as a large a part as the two leading men. There was a locomotive, real flames, rain, snow. Sets emerged from the floor, they were lowered down from the ceiling and appeared from the wings. There was  a church bell which made many in the audience jump (me included) when it was rung in the stalls even before the curtain went up. Though there were no curtains; the technology in theatres these days has all but made such an old-fashioned device obsolete.

The cast too, was on a grand scale; the company included nearly twenty actors. All of whom were expertly directed by Danny Boyle. And there's a rare thing - the acting, the set design as well as the script were working together in such unison that I didn't think about them as separate parts. I accepted the locomotive as a sign of the industrial revolution with its effects on the social structure, without it disrupting the flow of the play. The passing of time, and the change of seasons, were also cleverly woven into the script and the set design.

I completely suspended disbelief.

I wasn't alone in being bowled over by Frankenstein. On the night we went the company got a standing ovation - and rightly so. A woman sitting in front of us was sobbing and there were tears in the eyes of Miller and Cumberbatch when they accepted the applause. It was magical night at the theatre.

Frankenstein, a new play by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle
The National Theatre, South Bank, London
Running time about two hours with no interval

Thursday, 28 April 2011

London theatre reviews coming up

Just a week into this new dedicated London theatre review site I am thoroughly amazed by the huge amount of support I've had from my blogger friends (a special thanks has to go to LibertyLondonGirl), my fellow Twitterers as well as my 'real life' friends.

I can but thank you humbly as I plan my next set of reviews:

Frankenstein at the National Theatre - I'm very excited about seeing this production by Danny Boyle, especially after The Time Out magazine voted it as the best in London at the moment. It also has Benedict Cumberbatch in it. Sadly, its sold out. (We got tickets when a set of additional dates were added to the schedule.) There are some live broadcasts in cinemas across the world, so you may be able to catch one of those. Details are on the site above. Review will appear here on Monday 2nd May.

The next play is much more my cup of tea (or coffee actually): Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre. I have seen this Chekhov play many times before, in Helsinki as well as here in London. It's one of my all time favourites, so let's hope this production, which has the wonderful Zoe Wanamaker in the lead, lives up to my very great expectations. Review will be up by Sunday 15th May.

My up-coming theatre season seems to be totally dominated by the National Theatre because we are also going to see one of Ibsen's less known plays, Emperor and Galilean there. Now Ibsen is, after Strindberg of course, one of the playwrights I most feel at home with, so I am very much looking forward to this play too.

'Charting the true odyssey of an astonishing man, Julian, as he struggles to find spiritual fulfilment and political pre-eminence, Ibsen’s lost masterpiece sweeps across Greece and the Middle-East from AD 351 covering 12 crucial years in the history of civilisation.' (From )

It sounds terribly grand but I am sure Ibsen has scattered his Greek characters with some good old-fashioned Nordic angst. At least I hope so!

In addition to these planned performances, there may be some ad hoc plays that I see in the press reviewed or advertised and just feel that I have to see. I will obviously share with you my opinions on those too. In the meantime, I hope you are looking forward to the reviews coming up as much as I am to seeing the plays!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Moonlight by Harold Pinter - my very first guest post!

Deborah Findlay and David Bradley in Moonlight. Photo by Johan Persson via uk

Someone who two years ago, when I started blogging over on Helena Halme I admired  from afar, has now asked me to write a guest theatre review on her site! I know! In the unforgettable words of Kate Winslet on accepting an Oscar, I can only mumble, 'Gather, gather'.

Here are my words on LibertyLondonGirl - the blog of the ultimate fashion editor who lives in London and Manhattan and writes about life, love, fashion, design and food. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Mike Leigh's Ecstasy at the Hampstead Theatre

Mike Leigh is best known for his gritty work such as Abigail's Party, Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake. At the beginning of his career he wrote a frank play about the common tragedy that can be everyday life in Britain. Now he's decided to resurrect this play, directing it himself to boot.

There is something exciting about seeing a play that a famous film director has not only written, but is also personally directing. So when, just before the curtain went up, I spotted the veteran director in the audience a few rows in front of me, my heart started beating just a little faster again.

Ecstasy is set in 1979, a time that I too find fascinating. It's the end of the the Labour rule in Britain, end of the Winter of Discontent with its strikes, electricity cuts and student demos. Margaret Thatcher has just won the elections and there's a faint whiff of hope in the air.

Except none of this makes the slightest bit of difference to Jean, who to combat the boredom and poverty of her life as a petrol station attendant drinks heavily in her bedsit, while a string of uncaring boyfriends come and go. Jean's quiet suffering is brilliantly portrayed by Sian Brooke who with her shoulders slumped, chain smokes and often struggles to curve her slips into the faintest of smiles.

Even Jean's best friend, Val (Sinead Matthews), a frantic mother and wife of a loveable drunk, Mick (Allen Leech), fails to penetrate - or even see - Jean's private misery. Then when Jean's old boyfriend, the boring but gentle, Len - skilfully played by Craig Parkinson - suddenly reappears the audience is led to believe Jean could at last find happiness.

But Mike Leigh's work is never this straigth-forward.

Because even though the misery and unhappiness of the actors is tangible there is also great comic moments in the play. Sinead Matthews pins down the multilayered emotions of the wife of an alcoholic - her desperate worry for the future of her family encased by a willingness to love and be loved - with the funny lines Leigh has given her. While Craig Parkinson's Len, who's also looking for love, is oblivious to the complexity of human emotion. His naivety too is comic but also frustrating. At times I felt like shouting down to the stage, 'Kiss her, NOW!'

The run of Ecstasy has now ended at Hampstead, but luckily it has moved for a short time to the Duchess Theatre. I urge you to go and see this play - it's like a short, live piece of a Mike Leigh film. What could be better?

Monday, 18 April 2011

Small Hours at the Hampstead Theatre

 My marathon week of theatre-going started tonight with a one-woman play at Hampstead Theatre. This play, starring Sandy McDade and written by Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime,  has been selling out since it opened on12th January with a 'World Premiere'. The run was extended by two weeks to allow more people to see it.

All I knew about this play was that the audience would sit around the living room where the action takes place. What I didn't know was that we had to leave everything that we couldn't keep on our laps in the cloakroom (not a problem) and take our shoes off in a downstairs ante-room (a problem if your socks aren't immaculate which mine obviously were...hmm...), or that the audience was so very small in number - there must've only been twenty of us in total sitting around a basement flat living room.

To me the play was uncomfortable both physically (we were sitting on a hard veneer sideboard) and mentally. The subject matter of a young woman trying to cope on her own while her partner is away is so close to my heart that I very nearly left the set. But I remembered the little talk we'd been given just before we were told to remove our shoes about the play being an installation piece, where the audience is present but mustn't partake and most pointedly mustn't leave the set unless absolutely necessary. They even told us that there was a guard member of staff posted outside the door in case we tried to escape leave mid-performance.

Seriously, though, the play and particularly the performance of Lucy Kirkwood as a woman on the very brink of mental and physical breakdown is explosive. But watching her private hell at such close quarters seems wrong somehow. Several times during the hour-long play I found myself turning my face away from her, and I noticed others around the room do the same. So it begs the question, do we go to the theatre - or to any art exhibition or performance - to enjoy ourselves, or do we go to watch suffering? There must be a middle way. Let's hope my next two theatre pieces this week have a little more joy and happiness in them...

The Children's Hour at The Comedy Theatre

Image from

There's been a lot of conflict about this play in our household. Months ago, my friend, 'the theatre agent', found seats on a matinee that fitted our busy calendars. We decided to treat our daughters to it, thinking that our husbands wouldn't be interested in a play about a girls' school in New England. This was well before I knew that the subject matter was largely lesbianism, which in this case would be acted out by Keira Knightley and Peggy from Mad Men (sorry I know her real name is Elisabeth Moss but for me she's forever locked in her excellent TV character). It was also well before all the hype created in the press about the play.

Husband wasn't impressed 'What? I have to suffer your bleak Ibsens and Strindbergs and then when there's Keira in a hot steamy sex scene with Peggy I'm not invited?'

After seeing the play I could, with relief, report back to him that there wasn't even a whiff of a girl-on-girl action. Sadly, I thought the whole performance boring.

The set-up with the young students (girls in far too realistically unflattering and uncomfortable-looking potato sack uniforms) went on for far too long. This first scene was only rescued by the scatter-brained, mildly drunk Lily Mortar (aunt of Martha played by Carol Kane), a teacher who in her previous life had been a stage actress. She spent her time swigging from her hip-flask and instructing the flock of highly excitable teenage girls on what was ladylike and what wasn't. This scene was the only entertaining part of the play.

I also felt the widely celebrated performance of Bryony Hannah as the obnoxious 14-year-old girl Mary Tilford who, with her lying and blackmailing, causes the school to close down thereby destroying both the lives of Keira Knightely and Elisabeth Moss' characters, was false. Her hand wringing, teenage outbursts and jerky movements are highly unbelievable.

When Keira Knightley makes her long-awaited first entrance to the stage, I got a strong sense that the audience was supposed to clap, such was the power of her celebrity. Not in a million years did I ever feel that she actually was a wronged teacher in a girls school, nor did I believe in her relationship with the local doctor, Joseph Cardin, played by Tobias Menzies. The thin blouse she wore without a bra (we saw too much of her two pointy female bits - a pay-back to the few male members of the audience?) did little to convince us of any head-mistressy dowdiness.

Elisabeth Moss was more convincing, although in the last pivotal scene when she finally comes out with her confession of love for Keira - something which had been so obviously signalled throughout the play I was incredulous that she hadn't guessed - she too feels the need to overact.

The last scene, where Keira Knightley dramatically opens up the windows to let in sunlight (signalling new hope) was so far from subtly symbolic and so farcical I very nearly laughed out loud.

I know I may sound harsh about this play. It may be that I was just 'over-theatred' this week after seeing two other plays in almost so many days. My expectations could also have been too high due to the excellent reviews that The Children's Hour had received in the press. Or the fact that I kept seeing it as 'the hot ticket in town' in every magazine and newspaper in the last two months or so. Or I might be in a bad temper because the cold which I've been trying to fend off all week finally broke through last night and this morning I woke up with acute laryngitis. (Nature's way of shutting me up for a day or two,' says Husband who's still bitter about missing 'the lovely Keira')

Whatever, I woke up this morning having decided last night to just write a one-line review of this play, 'The cast all believe their own pr,' but couldn't resist having a more of a rant.

So many apologies, I promise now to crawl back to bed and try to make myself better in mood as well as in health for the week ahead. After all, theatre-going is all about the lows as well as the highs. Seeing something you don't enjoy makes plays that are excellent so much sweeter. That's the theory, anyway.

Strindberg's Apartment at The New Diorama Theatre

The New Diorama Theatre is a small 80 seat venue in central London, a mere hop and skip away from Great Portland Street and Regent's Park tube stations. It's a busy area on a weekday, but on a Saturday evening this side of Euston Road was deserted. The offices and a few cafes catering for the nine to five working folk were eerily empty.

Luckily there was the Queens Head and Artichoke nearby where we had a quick tapas and a glass of Rioja before the play started.

The pub was near empty but the food was excellent.
When we arrived at the Diorama we were told the play would start, 'Approximately seven thirty' and that we would be called in when the cast were ready. I love this kind of relaxed atmosphere in an independent theatre (I never realised how many there are in London).

So off we went to find a drink in the brightly lit bar, which after the darkened pub and quiet streets outside made me worry about the state of my make-up. Trying to be less self-conscious I read the programme and prepared myself to see another experimental piece of theatre. I saw Strindberg's Apartment was produced by The Faction Theatre Company, which is dedicated to innovative revivals of classical texts. The programme likened the play to Twin Peaks (the early nineties semi-supernatural TV series by David Lynch). I knew then we were in for an interesting evening.

But this experimental piece of theatre wasn't all bad; the premise of using Strindberg's works (The Storm, After the Fire, The Ghost Sonata, the Pelican and The Black Glove) as the plot for a play set in his own apartment block on the posh Drottninggatan in Stockholm is an excellent one, and I was fully sold on the play at the end of the first act.

Strindberg in his salon. Image from
The scene was set in the middle of a small room, where chalk marks divided the apartments. Looking like an architectural drawing, this helped the audience - seated all around the room - to understand these were separate flats we were peeping into and it also seemed to help the actors to keep inside the invisible walls of their particular apartment. (At this point I was relieved to see that the seats were real theatre ones, not part of the furniture, and that we were allowed keep our shoes on unlike at the set of Small Hours at The Hampstead Theatre)

At first when the characters, by walking around in a circle, ascended or descended the staircase, again depicted by a chalk-drawn square block in the middle of the stage, I had to stop myself from shouting, 'You're pretending, aren't you?'. Slowly I got more used to this and drawn into the various mini-dramas played out in front of me. The many actors had a varying degree of talent, but I was mostly drawn to the performance of Janine Ingrid Ulfane as the recently widowed, embittered Fru Vesterlund. Her contained suffering was well portrayed. It's no mean feat to pretend to jump to your death on a flat stage, from the top of a coffin lying at the feet of a couple of members of the audience (us!).

But when a fire devastates the house, sadly the plot falls to pieces too. First there were the recriminations - who started the fire? Then there's the appearance of the younger son of the owner of the apartment block, who returning from America has a grudge to bear and confronts his elder brother. 'Don't you remember?'  he says ominously. This scene, although seemingly nothing to do with the rest of the play is actually quite engaging.

But the question of who started the fire is never satisfactorily answered. We're plunged instead into a scene where a young student from the attic finally declares his love to the girl from the posh family in the upper, better apartments. The problem is she's now a ghost, amongst about half of the other residents of the apartment block. The whole play ends with a obscure monologue by the same student where he comes close to uttering the immortal song lyrics, 'The children are our future.'

It is a shame that this 2.5 hour play wasn't cut down to - say - two hours. There were several scenes which we could have done without, in particular the last monologue which just had me squirming in my seat, eager to leave the theatre.

I love Strindberg's work and here were several recognisable characters and scenes well turned into a new play. But on the whole this piece by Simon Reade lacked structure - it was as if the playwright wanted to omit as little as possible from the five Strindberg plays, while still adding his own mark on the piece.

Still, I'm glad I saw the play. It spurred me onto to work more on an idea involving Strindberg's life that I've had on the back burner for a while. Since I'm going to be in Stockholm later this month, I may do some more research. At least I shall visit the 'Blue Tower' as the master himself described his apartment. It now houses a museum with regular talks, exhibitions and even a Strindberg shop. I cannot wait.

National Assurance at The National Theatre

We very nearly didn't make it.

A few minutes before the curtain was due to go up, Husband and our two friends were still running along the Embankment, weaving our way around tourists, who'd braved the drizzly London river side, past the imposing concrete landmarks to The National Theatre. I was wearing flat pumps in favour of high heels, a decision which I'd agonised over and which probably was partly responsible for our tardiness. (I'd only packed two pairs of shoes). But at least I could run, even if I had to make the occasional jump over puddles to avoid ruining my light coloured suede Pretty Ballerinas. (You'd think that at my age I'd know what to pack for two days up in town, but this is one of my weaknesses well documented on this blog...)

The moment we sat down in our (2nd from the front, middle row - thanks to the excellence of our theatre-booking friend!) seats, the curtain rose. I had a faint feeling that the cast had been waiting for our entrance. For a while I could only concentrate on the not so faint cloud of disapproval emanating from the rest of the audience, which in comparison to our usual haunt, The Donmar, was substantial. But soon the excellence of the play overtook my sense of unease.

For those who don't know the play (as I didn't approximately 7.29pm on Saturday), it's a satirical farce written by Dion Boucicault set in the mid-nineteenth century. It's about vanity, money, privilege and love.

To say that Simon Russel Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly is brilliant is an understatement. His every gesture, facial expression and the way he delivers his lines is the embodiment of the ageing, over-weight, disillusioned, vain, greedy aristocrat. Equally magnificent is Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay Spanker (are you getting the idea of the play?). Her portrayal of the horse-loving, hunt-mad, jolly, no nonsense wife of an ageing country gentleman is so true to life it's scary. The way these two actors spark off each other's talent, one feels they alone could hold the show.

But there are other excellent performances, not least the valiant valet, played by Nick Sampson, or Lady Spanker's long-suffering husband, played by the veritable Richard Briers.

Though the play is well written and well adapted with a simple and more than predictable plot and ending, one feels that these actors could have made a glum Ibsen tale into a fast-moving romp. Which is something I know the two men in our regular theatre-going company can only dream of as our next play is Bergman's Through The Glass Darkly. Not only will this play challenge their capacity to remain awake under the spell of all that Nordic suicidal moroseness, to Husband's absolute horror, it also clashes with first England match in the World Cup. Oh well...

Dominic West in Life As A Dream at The Donmar

Donmar never disappoints. As an almost fanatical fan of The Wire, I had high expectations of Dominic West in 'Life as a Dream' last night. The play is a new adaptation by Helen Edmundson of a Spanish 17th century classic. This dark, but in places humorous piece is reminiscent of Shakespeare's work in the social interplay of its characters. But for me, it wasn't the brilliance of the script that shined on the night. I could run out of superlatives to describe West's performance, his presence threatening to overshadow the other actors on the stage. There was none of the womanising, boozing Baltimore cop here. West was the embodiment of the wronged, passionate prince that the role required. Enough to say I and several other members of the audience did all to resist a collective swooning over his impressive physique. I think I might be love.

Vicky Shaw at The Almeida

Well, my wish to have a jolly play next came true. Becky Shaw, a modern, witty play by Gina Gionfriddo, was just what I needed. (Don't be fooled by the poster above)

The play, which is set in New York and Boston among other places, centres around the fall-out from a father's death in a dysfunctional family. Sounds gruelling? But the play is above all a comedy, and a sharp and quick-witted one at that.

The marvellous Daisy Haggard, who's currently starring in BBC's 'Episodes', in the title role is as gormless as she is intense, totally meeting the challenge of being the desperate, funny singleton a la Bridget Jones.

Daisy Haggard
Haydn Gwynne (I remember her best from 'Drop the Dead Donkey') as the cynical mother of the family is also excellent, but the performance I most enjoyed was by David Wilson Barnes, who as the dry, realistic, un-emotional step-brother of the highly-strung Suzanna (Anna Madeley) really hit the mark, igniting many belly laughs from the audience. 'My date is Amish?' he comments on hearing Becky doesn't own a cell phone.

From left to right: Anna Madeley, Vincent Montuel (Andrew) and Daisy Haggard

David Wilson Barnes who I find myself having a tiny, tiny crush on this morning (though not my type at all!)

Haydn Gwynne

In spite of the gags, the play still tried to examine the state of the modern family and marriage. Here I must say it failed, trying to go deep into the psyche of the characters in a play, so littered with excellent comic dialogue, is not advisable in my view. It goes too near TV sitcom territory, which this play really didn't need to do. Ignoring the final scenes where attempts at some seriousness met with a stone-walled silence from the audience, the majority of the play was incredibly hilarious and with the casts' unfaltering American accents made a throughly enjoyable night out at the theatre.

Can't wait for Children's Hour later today, though after this weekend I think I might need to got to some kind of clinic to dry out from an overdose of art - the gym perhaps? Now that's an idea...

Rope at Almeida

This weekend I found out that it is possible to get lost on your way to a place you've frequently visited. All it takes is a dark evening and a closed road. And a little bit of stubbornness on behalf of a male driver. A husband, obviously.

We did eventually find our way to our destination through the winding, hilly lanes of Hampstead and were able to carry on with the weekend's activities. One of which was to see Rope at the Almeida Theatre in Islington.

The play was by Patrick Hamilton, a popular and talented London novelist and playwright, writing in the 1920's and 30's. His work reflects the darker side of society, and specialises in 'the lives of the lost and lonely' (Nigel Jones in the Rope programme). He also wrote Gaslight, which The Old Vic staged with Rosamund Pike in the lead role in 2007. Both plays are highly atmospheric, using darkness and light to create a menacing air.

Rope is set in a 1920's London town house where two Oxford undergraduates commit a senseless murder without motive, 'for adventure'. They hope it'll be the perfect crime. Minutes after the deed is done, the pair host a dinner party, inviting along the murder victim's elderly Father and Aunt, as well as a couple of young hapless upper class twits, and an astute, intelligent poet. You may well have guessed that it is the poet who starts to suspect something is amiss with the evening.

But to me the play is about so much more than 'will they or won't they get away with it?'. It is a clever study in human behaviour: in pride, in vanity, philosophy and in morality. Is it wrong to take a life if a human life has no value? This play was written in the shadow of World War I, and performed amidst the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression when life did indeed seem cheap and meaningless. Frighteningly all this resonates highly with the current economic situation and the shocking loss of life in wars as well as natural disasters.

The cast of  Rope at the Almeida Theatre London. Photo John Haynes

The stage at Almeida was arranged in the middle of the theatre, with seats around. Think Shakespeare's Globe Theatre or The Roundhouse in London's Camden. This was a stroke of genius. It made the audience feel as if included in the party and in the macabre goings on, as well as affording great views for all and sundry. Such a democratic way to arrange a theatre production.

Blake Ritson and Alex Waldmann in Rope at the Almeida Theatre London. Photo John Haynes

I've left the best part of the play till last: the acting. I couldn't say who was the most talented, or the most believable character in the production. They were all brilliant. Blake Ritson (of BBC1's recent production of 'Emma') as the scheming, cold-blooded Wyndham Brandon (above sitting in chair) was chillingly charming, with a dangerous undertone of temperamental violence. His partner in crime, Alex Waldman as the affable Charles Granillo (behind chair above) portrayed beautifully the weakness of those of us easily led by a stronger character such as Brandon.

Bertie Carvel in Rope at the Almeida Theatre London. Photo John Haynes

But a special mention must go to the absolutely wonderful Bertie Carvel (above), who played the intelligent and ascorbic poet, Rupert Cadell, with an affected accent and wooden leg. He did it with such brilliance that I was incredulous when I noticed his painful limp had gone at the curtain call. For wearing the hairstyle that would have made Marie Antoinette proud he should also receive a medal.

(All pictures by John Haynes on

Breakfast at Tiffany's at The Haymarket

There's almost nothing I hate more than seeing a bad play. Perhaps expecting a good evening at the theatre and then being utterly disappointed is worse. The waste of your time, money and effort is infuriating to say the least. Added to this, you then have to sit there, clap before the interval and then again at the end of the play.

OK, I'm sounding like a complete lovey, an art buff, who's life is filled with art gallery visits, plays, exhibitions and champagne events....but I'm not. I am a perfectly normal, financially challenged person who'd rather not pay for bad art.

So you've guessed it: I really did not like the Theatre Royal Haymarket's production of Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Firstly, the American accents were universally awful. The actors spoke in put-upon phoney inflection no New Yorker would have understood, let alone dreamt of expressing themselves in. Even Miss Friel seemed to have forgotten herself and descended back into 'English actress does American' rather than use her considerable experience from starring in a US TV series.

Second, the script, which I believe was probably quite good, lost its effectiveness due to the fast and frequent stage changes. One or two actors would barely have time to deliver their lines, before the stage was dimmed and furniture was moved about, by these same actors or stage hands, and we found ourselves in a different room or a different time of day. If the production was aimed at the 30-second attention span society, it succeeded. I don't think there was one scene that lasted longer than this. In a two and a half hour play this means a lot of stage arranging.

Many of these short scenes played for either laughs or wanted to titillate. We saw the lovely Miss Friel naked. In what I can only presume was in the interest of balance, the male lead also stripped down and showed us his assets. Give me Dominic West any day. In fact give me a Donmar production every time. Even a bad one. At least what you see at Donmar is in some way honest, done with integrity, with the aim to want to put across the theme and message of the play, rather than what I believe was attempted here at the Haymarket: to sell as many seats as possible with a favourite and actually a good actress in a play that the theatre knew would be popular, in a way (with nudity) that would be popular.

I have nothing against popularity, or popular art. It's what makes it possible to have culture, to produce art, I get that. But call me a purist and a spoil sport. Nudity is not sexiness. And there was no sexiness in this play which after all was about a prostitute and her life during the Second World War. How can you do that? How can you produce a play with these actors, with this script, with this subject and not make it sexy? Somehow The Royal Haymarket managed it.

Husband, who loved Anna Friel in Donmar's Lulu, which had more than its fair share of nudity and titillation, had been looking forward to seeing Miss Friel again. But even he thought the play poor. After we'd discussed the various artistic merits of the piece (or lack of them) he made a comment which became my favourite, 'Her bum was a bit saggy.' In hindsight, just for those lovely words it was worth sitting through one of the most painfully boring plays I've seen in a while.