Theatre Review: Charles III, Almeida Theatre

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Charles III was a very different play to the one I was expecting to see. I had read the (glowing) reviews and seen the promo pictures of the characters in Spitting Image masks and assumed it was a farce with a biting satirical edge. There was even a time that I thought it was a musical.

Maybe the real life Prince Charles was partly to blame for my pre-show assumptions,after all if any member of the royal family is rich for satire and mockery it’s our heir to the throne with his bah-humbug attitude to modern architecture (modern anything?) and his infamous convos with plants. But Mike Bartlett’s penned Charles III is far better than a rollicking farce – although it is often crying-with-laughter funny – it’s played with a seriousness and realism that surprised and impressed me.

Jocelyn Pooks rousing, majestic music accompanies the dramatic opening scene as the royals and assorted big wigs assemble for Elizabeth II’s funeral, setting the tone for a play that is compelling, emotional and thrilling. His mum still barely cold, Charles, even before he’s officially got that longed for crown on his head, is kicking up a fuss about the seen-and-not-heard nature of his role as head of state. Things go from awkward to very messy in a few days and by the second half it’s gone a bit V for Vendetta.

Everything about this new play by Barnett is brilliantly realised, from the instantly recognisable royals who grow out of their media-given straight jackets as the play develops, to the scenario of a tank in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. None of it seemed ludicrous even when we were laughing at what seemed absurd (I admit to laughing at the tank bit with some trepidation; would I look back at this moment when there was an actual tank sitting on the foreground of Buckingham Palace and wonder what was so funny?).

I loved, loved, loved Richard Goulding’s Prince Harry who grew from the tabloid fool we know (and in many cases, love) him for today, to a sensible duty-first second son, sprouting heartfelt blank verse like his name sake Prince Hal after he’s dumped Falstaff and is trying to get into his dad’s good books. And talking of Shakespeare, his influence is all over this, from Hamlet to Richard II and, in my mind most of all, King Lear, his poetry and supernatural plot lines haunt Rupert Goold’s production. Perhaps Shakespeare is most apparent when the political turns personal, because like all stories about princes, it’s the torment of the man versus the royal figure that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Tim Piggott-Smith is brilliant at playing parts where he’s both sympathetic and enormously frustrating, a skill he’s once again called on as Charles III. He’s fantastic as a man who is led by principle to the detriment of all else. He’s confused, bordering on the brink of madness, unable to comprehend the world around him like a better dress Lear. His face as he realises he’ll never be the king he’d hope to be is heartbreaking.

Lydia Wilson gives Kate Middleton a voice for the first time and what a voice; in Mike Bartlett’s play the future queen is a steely intelligent tour de force behind that glossy hair. I thought her character was brilliantly brought to life and completely believable. I hope the real Kate has half as much drive and intelligence as Wilson’s. Oliver Chris’ William was at first a Tim-nice-but-dim who soon stepped up to do his duty, politely of course, again squeeze your eyes half shut and he could have been Wills (with rather more hair).

Charles III is the kind of play we need right now, clever, witty, full of spark, critical without being sarky. Its triumphant run at the Almeida Theatre ends in two days, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this play.

Charles III finishes at the Almeida Theatre on Saturday 31 May, but returns to the Wyndhams Theatre in the West End briefly in September. For more information visit http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/kingcharleswe.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Theatre Review: Bakersfield Mist, Duchess Theatre

Bakersfield Mist

Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist

My grandmother had a reproduction of one of Lowry’s famous matchstick men pictures on her dining room wall that she was convinced was one of the painter’s great lost works. The painting, one I remember vividly from my childhood, disappeared after she died and I noted that the original wasn’t in the recent Lowry exhibition at the Tate Britain. Perhaps she was right after all… 

Despite her deep rooted belief, I don’t think my grandmother ever called in an art expert to ascertain the providence of this painting as Maude, the protagonist in Bakersfield Mist, does. And if my gran had persuaded a top art bod to travel to her Reading home to cast an expert eye over her Lowry, I don’t think events would have followed those told in new writer Stephen Sach’s play about the value – both monetary and emotional – of art.

Acting royalty Kathleen Turner is Maude, a trailer park dwelling, unemployed barmaid who ekes out a life for herself on the fringes of the world’s richest country with some help from Jack Daniel’s. She is convinced her fortunes have changed thanks to a $3 painting she picked up at a thrift store as a joke birthday present for a friend. After nearly destroying the painting during the birthday celebrations, Maude decides to sell it in a garage sale where a neighbour tells her he thinks she may have Jackson Pollock on her hands.

Having previously not known a Pollock from a pre-school finger painting, Maude swots up on him and is so certain she’s made the art discovery of the decade that she pays for stuffy art academic Lionel Percy to come down to her trailer park and cast his expert eye over it. All this happens before the curtain goes up so we first meet Maude as she’s shooing off her neighbour’s dogs from Lionel’s trouser legs.

Lionel is played by Scotsman Ian McDiarmid who here plays a stuck up public schooled English plonker. He is an archetypical bah-humbug English villain come to wreck the dreams of a game American. He takes one look at the painting (the audience never see it, I’m hoping it was a blown up Stone Roses’ cover) and Maude’s cramped trailer, and attempts to scurry back to his waiting limo driver. But of course if he did that there wouldn’t be a play, so he sticks around for the next hour and 40 minutes for his part in an amusing two-hander that doesn’t quite catch fire.

Bakersfield Mist is a likable, well-acted play with enough good lines and a few narrative surprises to keep our attention, but it never punches through to greatness and the focus seemed to wander. Things start to get interesting – as they usually do – when Lionel begins knocking back the Jack Daniel’s. McDiarmid plays a great drunk and his character is far more palatable loosened up with Lynchburg’s finest.  Like wine, it’s difficult to talk about art without sounding like a bit of a tit, but when tipsy Lionel expresses his passion for art, and Pollock in particular, he takes the easel from out of his backside and talks like a (very drunk) – human. It’s a shame, not to mention unlikely, that he sobers up so quickly.

For all the initial bolshiness of Kathleen Turner’s Maude, and the actress’ great presence, the part felt rather underwritten. By the end Maude seemed to have shrunk into the background and when she does takes centre stage and starts to spill her secrets to Lionel, her dialogue is jarringly poetic.

The Duchess is a lovely, intimate theatre and the set is a cracker that makes you feel that you’re sitting in Maude’s bric-a-bracstrewn trailer. Bakersfield Mist may not have the punch and resonance of recent US hits, A View from the Bridge and Good People, but it’s a cosy, undemanding drama with two appealing leads that could even convince the most Pollock-phobic that he’s an artist worth loving.

by Suzanne Elliott

Bakersfield Mist runs until 30 August 2014 at the Duchess Theatre.

Theatre Review: Good People, Noël Coward Theatre

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Matthew Barker, Imelda Staunton, Lorraine Ashbourne and June Watson in Good People

There’s been some mutterings in the press in recent weeks about new US playwrights and actors staging some kind of theatrical coup in London.

Of the past six plays I’ve seen, three have been American (and I’m lined up to see Kathleen Turner in the latest production from across the pond in Bakersfield Mist this week). Now call me bad at math(s), but I’m not sure this percentage constitutes a takeover; I don’t think we’ll have to call on some stage hands to erect a MDF wall around Shaftesbury Avenue just yet.

And at least we have national treasure Imelda Staunton flying the flag for British talent as the lead in one of these plays from those New World upstarts, a play that deals with that very English problem – class – in a very un-English way.

After a sold out, critically acclaimed run at Hampstead Theatre, Good People has transferred to the Noël Coward theatre to fill the bare stage following the early demise of The Fully Monty. You could draw plenty of comparisons between Good People and The Full Monty; both are about blue collar workers facing an uphill struggle against constant disappointment and bad luck. But David Lindsay-Abaire’s play – loosely based on his own upbringing in South Boston’s tough neighbourhood known as “Southie” – is sharper, savvier and doesn’t flinch from issues of class and race. Plus there’s no Donna Summer and everyone keeps their clothes on.

We first meet Margie (Staunton) as she’s being sacked by her boss (a former friend’s son) from her dead-end job in a dollar store after he tires of her chronic lateness. She’s only late, she pleads, because her babysitter (her upstairs neighbour and landlady) never turns up on time to mind Margie’s grown-up, disabled daughter.

Her plight is obvious, but while she’s clearly a woman with some tough obstacles, she’s not presented as a virtuous person, there’s a hint of malice and dishonesty in her that tarnishes her situation, or rather our sympathies for her situation.

Right from beginning, Margie is an ambiguous figure and your sympathies for her oscillate throughout the play. On the whole,  thanks to the terrific warmth and humour that Staunton instils in her,  I was largely on her side, and when it looked like I’d been duped, I felt betrayed, only for Lindsay-Abaire  to nimbly challenge what we thought was happening.

At rock bottom and facing eviction, Margie’s gobby friend Jean (played with relish by Lorraine Ashbourne) mentions how she’s recently bumped into a an old school friend Mike (Lloyd Owen) who has escaped the mean streets of “Southie” for posh Chestnut Hill – which we will see later is all White Company beige and creams – and how he may have a job for her. He got out thanks to his big brain, pushy dad, and we learn, protection from the harsher realities of life .

The awkward meeting in his fancy office (he’s now a successful fertility doctor) unearths more of Margie’s simmering anger at the injustice of life and rattles Mike enough for his smooth Chestnut Hill veneer to slip to reveal some Southie tough talking. Angered by Margie’s comment that he’s become “lace-curtain Irish” he invites her to his party at the weekend. When he later phones to tell her the party has been cancelled, Margie doesn’t believe him and turns up at his house anyway.

Here we meet Mike’s young, beautiful, middle class wife and Lindsay-Abaire’s funny, punchy script and some fine acting from the three main players (Merlin’s Angel Coulby is superb as Mike’s overly fastidious wife Kate) makes for some compelling face-offs as truth, choice and what constitutes nice get debated with little finesse over cheese and wine.

Good People is  about class and race, nature versus nurture; an examination of the American Dream where you can – so they say – aspire to be anything as long as you work at it. It challenges the idea that we get where we are because we deserve to be – an idea (lie) that is still pedalled furiously by those who can afford to, forgetting that even being born with the drive to succeed is fortunate.

For all its messages, Good People is a play you can enjoy on its own merits; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and the past provides enough intrigue to keep you gripped to the end. And despite its dark edges, there’s warmth and tenderness, played without a hint of sentimentality.

Good People runs until 14 June at the Noël Coward theatre. For more information and tickets visit www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A View from the Bridge, Young Vic

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View from the Bridge

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View from the Bridge

After a two week road trip in the American South in seemed apt (ish) to see two plays by US writers in my first week back. Apt-ish because the New York and Boston where the two plays I saw, Arthur Miller’s classic A View from the Bridge and David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 Good People, are respectively set are as far removed from Tennessee and Louisiana as London is from the Sahara.

But these punchy plays both contain universal themes that transcend state lines, international border and eras. In fact, despite the fifty odd years that separate the two plays, there are obvious – and in many cases depressing – similarities between the two; both are set in tough working-class urban neighbourhoods and both examine truth, choice, consequence and the complexities of right and wrong.

The Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge was the first post-holiday theatre trip. I have never been a huge Miller fan, his world have always felt too male-focused to resonate with me, the egos of the male characters dominate the page and the stage without – to my mind at least – the romanticism and the narcissistic female to blunt the machismo that Tennessee Williams had.

To further consolidate my opinion, I saw a production of A View from the Bridge a few years ago that was so stagnant that the ending came as a relief and served to put me off Miller for life. That is until I read reviews of the Young Vic’s production that were so glowing that Ivo van Hove’s production sounded life changing…

And it’s certainly changed my mind about Miller. A View from the Bridge is a physically and emotionally tough play and this production doesn’t flinch from the rawness in Miller’s script, an attitude reflected in the physiques of the three male leads. The production pulsates with masochismo, lust and a fateful sense of doom, amplified by the soothing, yet soaring Fauré’s Requiem that accompanies the more dramatic moments, while the stiller family face-offs are set to a hypnotic tick-tock which I couldn’t work out helped build the tension or distract from it.

Leading a superb cast is Mark Strong who is no stranger to playing the bad guy. But Eddie Carbone is a far more complex character than a black and white badie. He’s a deluded, ego-driven man blinded by self-importance and an obsession with his niece which sends him into a spiralling circle of madness. Eddie is an insufferable twit, of course, but he’s no pantomime villain, there’s a vulnerability and desperation to him that an actor needs to unearth from underneath the character’s blind fury, which Strong does with fearsome power.

During a performance, I like to watch, if I’m near enough to see their faces, the actors that aren’t at that moment speaking as they can often reveal more about that character in those quiet moments than when they’re in the spotlight. I could go back a second time and watch Strong the entire time – not to take anything away from the rest of the cast – but he glowers with an intensity that is intimidating, even on the back row. He fully deserves the line that lawyer and narrator Alfieri (Michael Gould) ascribes to him “but I will never forget how dark the room became when he looked at me; his eyes were like tunnels”.

Of course Eddie’s actions are legally right, but morally they are very suspect and ultimately devastating. I was hugely depressed by the thought that the immigration theme that this play – written in 1955 – tackles is still an issue. The line where Rodolfo (played brilliantly by Luke Norris), defending himself from Phoebe Fox’s childlike, but ferocious Catherine’s accusations that he wants to marry her purely for her papers dismisses the idea of America as some kind of Utopia; “It’s (America) so wonderful? “I want to be an American so I can work, that is the only wonder here – work!” resonates far too much in a world where UKIP exist.

As Ruth in Spooks Nicola Walker was called on to wobble her bottom lip many times while also maintaining a steeling reserve. As Beatrice, Eddie’s wife, she’s required to be the opposite – Bea is ostensibly tough, berating her niece for her innocence and naivety, when in reality Catherine is the strong one, the one who doesn’t let Eddie grind her down.

Van Hove’s slick direction injected some adrenaline into those final, frantic minutes, rather than shifting the action from the street to the police station and back again, he keeps the actors in the same place and has Alfieri read the stage directions so the play reaches a crescendo with a tension that’s almost physically uncomfortable.

And the ending, one most of the audience knows is coming, is brutal and moving and more than contributes to the idea that now would be a good time to buy shares in fake blood; London’s theatres are awash with it.

by Suzanne Elliott

Catch A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic until 7 June .