Monday, 8 October 2012

Free Download!

For a limited period for FIVE days only, starting today, The Englishman will be FREE to download from Amazon. (Where you can also find a Kindle app for most other e-readers, including iPads)

The Englishman is a will they,
won't they love story
 set in Helsinki in the 1980's.

The Englishman 
8 October 2012
12 October 2012 

You can download my book here, but hurry, this is once only offer and will end on Friday. 
After this short free promotion the price of The Englishman will be £2.99.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

A Chorus of Disapproval at Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Nigel Harman, Rob Brydon and Ashley Jensen.

I'm not a lover of musical theatre. My first experience of it was many years ago in the eighties, when I saw 'Cats' with my sister in London. We both thought we must have missed something when we didn't really think much of it. Everyone else seemed to think it was absolutely the best thing since sliced bread. Over the years I've seen a few shows, just because I've had to, and only enjoyed 'Mamma Mia' because the tunes took me back to my teenage years in Sweden. I'd much rather go and see a serious depressing play by Strindberg (obviously) or Ibsen. If there's any singing to be done on a stage, I'd much rather it was the real thing, opera. I know I'm dull, but there's no accounting for taste.

So, when I heard that the play, A Chorus of Disapproval, we'd booked to see with the Englishman's mother last night was really a musical, my heart sank. The only saving grace was that the production was directed by Trevor Nunn and starred Rob Brydon who I think is really funny.

Photo A Chorus of Disapproval
Of course had I known anything about musical theatre, I would have known that A Chorus of Disapproval is the mother of all musicals (the programmes can be so informative). Written by Allan Ayckbourn, it's a classic piece.

The opening of the play is also the opening night of a small town amateur operatic company's production of The Beggar's Opera. It ends in a triumph, but when the curtain goes down (which is cleverly portrayed by a shadow descending onto the stage), all's not well with the star of the show, played by Nigel Harman, who seems to be shunned by the rest of the company. 

The play then goes back to the beginning of the story and Nigel Harman's audition with the director, Rob Brydon. And I find myself enjoying this first scene. Not only is there some very good singing by both Harman, and (especially) Brydon, but they are both genuinely funny too. 

It's all a lot of nonsense, but it's good, funny and well-played nonsense, which I enjoyed very much. Rob Brydon is excellent as the ambitious director who admits he uses art as an escape from his real life troubles. Ashley Jensen (of Ugly Betty fame) is good as Brydon's unhappy wife who seeks solace with Harman's character. Her singing is a little weak at times, but then she's supposed to be an amateur…The rest of the cast is stellar too, and there are many more comic moments as we get an insight into the complicated (sex/love) lives of the amateur cast.

All in all, I was almost sad when the curtain really fell and the play was over. 

A Chorus of Approval with Rob Brydon
For a limited season up till 5th January 2013
Harold Pinter Theatre
The Haymarket
London SW1Y 4DN

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Physicists at The Donmar Warehouse

Every theatre company is allowed the occasional flop, and The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse definitely was one. In fact the play was so bad we walked out at the interval. Yes, I know, this is the first time ever I've done it, and I didn't take the decision lightly.

The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse.
Photograph: Johan Persson
The play, which I presume was supposed to be a farce, had as many caricatures as could humanly be fitted onto the small stage. There were pretty nurses wearing short tight skirts and high heels, being murdered by mad scientists, who in turn were looked after by a thoroughly loony, humpbacked psychiatrist. The final straw for our group was when two young German men dressed in lederhosen entered the stage.

The plot (which was recounted to us by a very friendly member of the staff who saw us leaving early) was so silly that I think even the actors had difficulty in believing in their own characters and came across as stiff and unconvincing.

But in the name of science, which became our theme of the night, we decided to carry out research of our own, making our way to the recently opened Speakeasy cocktail bar in Hampstead, Dach and Sons (Time Out review here). We tried almost all their inventive drinks, so much so, that the next morning my head rather wished we'd stayed on for the second half of the play…below some of the drinks we had. (Don't ask me to name them.)

The friendly barman
who kept supplying us
with cocktails at Dach and Sons.
(The Physicists ran until 21 July this year)

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Timon of Athens at The National Theatre

Simon Russell Beale, centre, is in compelling form in Nicholas Hytner's production of Timon Of Athens. Photograph: Tristram Kenton 
I love Simon Russell Beale and I love the National Theatre.

Mr R-B could act the contents of the Yellow Pages for me and I'd give him a standing ovation. So the fact the this unfinished play by Shakespeare was more depressing and (dare I say it) a little boring, rewritten and set as it was in the modern times, didn't matter a jot to me.

Simon Russell Beale owned the stage, and I laughed, scoffed and cried with him as his fortunes, as Timon, were turned from the wealthy - and too generous as it turned out - Athenian benefactor to a down and out tramp. The lessons of the play were that good time friends are just that - good time friends - and that money breeds greed and violence. There were some references to last summer's riots in London as well as to the recent anti Capitalist demonstrations in the City of London, the credit crunch and the corruptive effect of absolute wealth, but on the whole no-one in the play came out smelling of roses.

I think it's a noble effort to try both to finish a play by such a master as Shakespeare, as well as to set it in modern times. I've said on this blog before that I'm really no expert on Shakespeare - he was but skimmed in my Finnish education - and have to admit that this play was a difficult one for me to grasp.

And Timon of Athens lacked any kind of reprieve for the audience; there was very little humour, no sex and no love story. But, it may be that, as I've found with other Shakespeare plays, they have a habit of growing on you: the more Shakespeare I see the more I enjoy him.

As with Shakespeare, the National Theatre too has been growing on me. When  I moved here in the early 1980's I thought the South Bank building ugly and the theatre too large, sterile and anonymous. But now I love the stark architecture and appreciate the flexibility the different stages at the National afford a theatre company. And having spent the previous night not at all enjoying King Lear at the Almeida, partly because the seats were cramped, the comfortable chairs of the National were a bonus too.

The lighting at the National is often dramatic too.
Timon of Athens runs until 1 November 2012
Olivier Theatre
National Theatre
South Bank

Monday, 14 May 2012

My inspiration and obsession...

August Strindberg
I thought I'd just write a little post about August Strindberg the wonderful playwright, author and painter, who was the inspiration for the name of this blog. He died 100 years ago at his Stockholm Home, Blåa Torned (Blue Tower). He was only 63 years old.

A re-imaged version of Strindberg's most celebrated play Miss Julie, was staged brilliantly at Donmar Warehouse in 2008. It's a production starring Helena Baxendale, Richard Coyle and Kelly Reilly which I often refer to in my reviews here, because it was just the most perfect performance. The acting was so intense I nearly fell off my seat when the neck of an imaginary canary was being broken by Richard Coyle. Of course being a Strindberg addict, I am a little biased when it comes to his most famous play.

Richard Coyle and Kelly Reilly in the Donmar production of After Miss Julie. Photo The Telegraph
My sister told me that Swedish TV is screening a series of programmes tonight in Strindberg's honour including his plays and documentaries about his life. Oh, I wish I was there!

Finally here's a little link to a post I did about the Strindberg museum in Stockholm (among other things), housed in his last apartment on Drottningsgatan.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Making Noise Quietly at The Donmar Warehouse

Jordan Dawes and Matthew Tennyson. Picture:
Making Noise Quietly by Robert Holman, directed at The Donmar by Peter Gill, is three plays in one, all dealing with experiences of war from different ages and points of view.

In the first short story, a chance meeting between a homosexual writer, Eric Faber, (Matthew Tennyson) and a young Quaker and a conscientious objector, Oliver Bell (Jordan Dawes), brings revelations and insights into both men's lives.

The stark set with only green paint to infer a meadow, did disturb me a little. Theatre is all about suspending disbelief and here the audience had to work hard to believe that Oliver Bell, a healthy and strong man with an open face and an easy smile, was indeed a social outcast because he worked on a farm instead of defending his country at war in the 1940's. Both Dawes and his co-star, Matthew Tennyson, needed all the help they could get to make this story and their characters real. A few sprigs of grass would have made a difference, perhaps. Even though Oliver Bell was not as much a caricature as Eric Faber, with his high-wasted wide legged trousers and effeminate gestures, his religious Oliver came across as stiff and shallow. While in contrast, when Tennyson, who was by far the more talented actor of the two, set down a tablecloth for his lunch, or ripped open a paper bag of cherries, the audience actually laughed. I wasn't sure, however, the playwright had planned on comic scenes in the performance.

The second play was - for me at least - far more convincing.

John Hollingworth and Susan Brown. Picture:
During the Falkland's War, a naval officer, John Hollingworth as Lieutenant Geoffrey Church, comes to offer his condolences to a mother of a fellow officer who has perished at sea, but finds that she has not been informed of the death. Both the shocked mother, the stiff naval officer, and the slowly unravelling story of the lost son, made me well up. By the grace of God, I've never had to experience this kind of scene. The Englishman was disturbed by Hollingworth's unpolished shoes, lack stiff collar and the biggest sin of all, a Navy issue cap instead of tailored Gieves & Hawkes one on a man who's father was Vice Admiral. The Englishman made the point that his appearance would have been Lieutenant Church's safety blanket when going to do a difficult task such as this. The research into the small details in the characters' lives could have been better, all the same the tragic plot of this play touched me deeply.

The third and final short play was set in modern times in Germany where a soldier, Alan Todd, played by Ben Batt, has gone AWOL.

He and his estranged wife's son, Sam (Lewis Andrews), are being given refuge with a local old woman, Helena Ensslin, played by Sara Kestelman. Sam, the young boy is obviously disturbed, and instead of speaking, makes strange noises and gestures with his body. I feared what might transpire, and was indeed correct in my suspicions why Sam is dumb. Similarly the old German woman's history is as tragic as you would expect and the soldier is as violent as you'd expect and the whole story follows a predictable path. I'm afraid I didn't find anything in this last play to recommend it. There were just strong words, empty cursing and unconvincing lines, which all made the characters clumsy caricatures, in spite of the best efforts of the cast.

Making Noise Quietly
Three Short Plays
by Robert Holman
Donmar Warehouse
Until 26 May 2012

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar Warehouse

I don't often see a play on its last night. I like to review everything I see in London theatre here, and it seems somewhat pointless to write about a play that's no longer running.

Still, there's something magical about a final night's performance.

The Recruiting Officer, a play written by George Farquhar and first performed in London in 1714, was well worth it, though. I didn't know the playwright, but the writing reminded me of both Shakespeare and (much later) Dickens; a woman dresses as a man and remains unrecognised until she reveals her true identity; the names of the characters are almost ridiculously revealing of their fate in the play.

But essentially The Recruiting Officer is a comedy. There are many belly laughs, and even singing. As you know, if you read this blog often, I do like the Donmar, but I hate, hate musicals. Thankfully the musical interludes were limited to the start and end of each act.

The story centres around love, money, and pride. Mackenzie Crook as Sergeant Kite is word-perfect. He's the epitome of a cunning recruiting officer, world-weary second-in-command to Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies). At the start of the play, the two men arrive in a well-known village to recruit more men to the Queen's army. The end justifies the means; locals are duped by any kind of trickery into fighting the French. But this village is like no other - the love of the promiscuous Captain Plume's life, Silvia (Nancy Carroll) lives here.

Mackenzie Crook
In another story line, a childhood friend of Captain Plume, Mr Worthy (Nicholas Burns) also has woman trouble; the increase in the fortune of his heart's desire, Melinda (Rachel Stirling), makes her too high-and-mighty for the modest Worthy. Instead she accepts the advances of the hilariously camp Captain Brazen, played by the excellent Mark Gatiss. His make-up is all slapstick, and his performance certainly lives up to this; I would say his comical timing is on par with that of my absolute favourite stage actor, Simon Russell Beale. His comedy act was brilliantly matched by Rachel Stirling as Melinda who with her new-found fortune puts on upper-class affectations. Her hot-potato-in-the-mouth accent is so funny, it made her cousin in the play, Nancy Carroll, struggle with her own lines. This was all part of the play and made the audience shake with laughter.

Mark Gatiss

Rachel Stirling

Nancy Carroll dressed as a man showing off her amorous side.
When further complications in the love lives of the two male leads emerge, the action becomes more furious. But the predictably happy ending for the two couples is touched by melancholy as the villages and musicians put down their instruments and one by one go off to war.

When then curtain fell, and after the cast - twice - reappeared to riotous applause, the audience was still not satisfied. A third curtain call by the theatre company was rewarded by a standing ovation from the audience. I'm sure I saw tears in many of the actors eyes as they stood there, watching the full house at Donmar whoop their appreciation. This was some final night indeed and a good start to the new artistic leadership of Josie Rouke after the departure of Michael Grandage, whose productions at The Donmar won many awards.

Talking of awards, on Sunday (14 April 2012) Ruth Wilson was awarded an Olivier for her role in Anna Christie, a play by Eugene O'Neill. The play also got an Olivier for Best Revival Play. You can read my review of the play here. (I also reviewed two other Olivier Award successes on this blog: The National Theatre's productions of Frankenstein, and Collaborators).

Donmar Warehouse
41 Earlham Street
Seven Dials
London WC2H 9LX


The forthcoming plays at the Donmar are:

Making Noise Quietly 
By Robert Holman

19 Apr - 26 May 12 

The Physicists
By Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new version by Jack Thorne
31 May - 21 Jul 12
Book tickets here.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Purge at the Arcola Theatre

The harrowing novel, Purge by Sofi Oksanen, charting the sad history of an Estonian family, has since its publication in Finland in 2008 won several significant international prizes.

But Purge started life as a play, and when it first ran at the Finnish National Theatre, the production was immediately invited to Dramaten in Stockholm, and to Eesti Draamateater in Estonia. Such is the power of this story of war and passion in a small European country.

The UK premiere of Purge at Arcola Theatre starts with scenes from an atrocity. It's almost unbearable watching the filmed sequence, and I have to admit, while imagining what was happening - the assault on a defenceless young woman by jeering soldiers - I began to worry that this play would be just too grim for me.

But the scene soon changes and we're in the kitchen of old Aliide Truu (Illona Linthwaite), the lead in the play. When she finds a down-and-out young girl, Zara, played by Elicia Day, in her yard, Aliide's past history begins to haunt her. Sensing the horror of the scantily clad Zara's physical and emotional bruises acquired during her short life, Aliide remembers things she'd rather forget from her own past.

Old Aliide (Illona Linthwaite) and Zara (Elicia Daly). Photo by Simon Kane
The action moves to Estonia some forty years before, when Aliide, married to a local party official, is hiding her sister's Estonian husband, Hans Pekk, an Independent Estonian Army soldier, (played by Finnish born Kris Gummerus) in the cellar of the family home. We soon see that the young Aliide, portrayed brilliantly by Rebecca Todd, is hopelessly in love with Hans Pekk. Her gaze never leaves his body. Her brave - and deceitful - actions driven by her obsession do not, however, conceal her fear, nor her natural vulnerability. Both Rebecca Todd and Kris Gummerus give convincing and natural performances. You could almost see Aliide's unrequited love landing on the handsome shoulders of Hans Pekk, as she rubs his back in the bathtub.

Young Aliide (Rebecca Todd) and Hans Pekk (Kris Gummerus). Photo by Simon Kane
In this scene we are in the harsh age of the Soviet rule in Estonia, where German collaborators are relentlessly and often wrongly pursued, where food is scarce and where the wrong word uttered by the wrong person could see them being deported to Siberia, or 'interrogated' by the local Russian officials. To survive, others have to be betrayed and when we find that Aliide's niece and sister, as well as her parents before them, have been deported to the Gulags, we begin to wonder how low Aliide has sunk in order to save herself and Hans Pekk.

When back in modern times - the early 1990's, immediately after the fall of the Soviet rule - we are told the story of another tragic life, that of Zara. She is pursued by two Russian pimps whom she's managed to escape from but who are hell bent on retrieving and making an example of her. The two men, played by Liam Thomas and Benjamin Way are suitably scary and despicable. In the scene, one, Lavrenti (Liam Thomas), is perfecting a wooden carved phallus, which is then used by the other, Pasha, (Benjamin Way) to torment another 'mis-behaving' girl out of the audience's view. But the two men aren't in agreement with each other; we detect a softness and a reluctance to torture the girls in Lavrenti, while Pasha dreams of more outrageous money-making schemes, 'The world is changing and it's all up for grabs.'

Having seen the danger Zara is in, we begin to wonder why the young girl has sought Aliide out. The old woman too is suspicious, but while they try to hide their tragic pasts from each other, the true relationship between the two women is revealed. It's time to purge the past.

The play moves skilfully from one age to another, the two Aliides, old and young, are even allowed to communicate across the eras, something that could only work if the play was as well produced as this version of Purge at Arcola was. We, as the audience, completely understand that it is really old Aliide remembering, taking stock of her past life.

The set design also helps the play to go back and forth in time; there is a kitchen with an alcoved bed, as well as trapdoor which very convincingly acts as the hiding place of Hans Pekk. The actors across the time zones somehow manage to remain unseen if in the wrong era, or as in the case of old Aliide, even take part.

This time travel in a play is a feat in itself, even if the subject matter was - say - romantic love. But Purge is a story of abuse, of political fervour, of obsessive love, of survival. It's a difficult play to make into enjoyable watching. Even so, this production managed to drill down into the real personal experiences of the characters. One could understand why each character did what he or she did, even Allide's political activist husband, Martin, played by Johnny Vivash, is just an idealist gone too far. OK, perhaps the thug of a Russian pimp, Pasha (Benjamin Way), would need a bit more of a PR campaign for him to seem sympathetic. His character was truly challenging to play, and Benjamin did it brilliantly, dare I say it, with the help of the slang of a modern football hooligan.

Because I had previously read the book, I found the play a thrilling, although at times, a haunting spectacle. The characters, especially Kris Gummerus and Rebecca Todd, as Hans Pekk and the young Aliide, filled in details about the character's passionate tendencies that weren't necessarily clear from the novel.

After the play when we were fortunate enough to meet the cast and production team, I asked one member of the audience who hadn't read the novel Purge how they found the play. I was told the performance had re-ignated a love for theatre that the person hadn't realised they'd lost.

So not only does this play tell an important story of a tragic history of a country - Estonia - and its people, it also encourages a new audience for theatre. You cannot ask for any more than that.

Borelia Theatre Production
The Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street
E8 3DL
22 February - 24 March 2012