Theatre Review: Matchbox Theatre, An Evening of Short Entertainments, Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn's Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s Matchbox Theatre at Hampstead Theatre

Michael Frayn’s latest (and maybe his last) book, Matchbox Theatre, was a collection of 30 short sketches that revealed the workings of his creative output across the stage and the page over the past 50 years. Written over the course of his career, inbetween his many other projects, Matchbox Theatre smudged the boundaries between his dramatic works and his fiction. Were these sketches short stories or minute plays?

Hampstead Theatre clearly voted for ‘play’ in the debate and installed Hamish McColl in the director’s chair to bring the pieces to life with an ensemble of six actors, Esther Coles, (the very likable) Nina Wadia, Tim Downie, Mark Hadfield, Felicity Montagu and Chris Larner.

I am a big fan of Michael Frayn (except for the dirgey Democracy that remains the only play I’ve ever nodded off in). He is a specialist at smart comedy and witty intelligence whether for theatre or fiction. His work is frantic with ideas and dazzlingly dexterous in their execution. It’s no surprise that despite his prolific output, there are enough scraps worthy of a two-hour play.

But Matchbox Theatre does sometimes feel a little too much like those metaphorical balls of paper strewn around the wastepaper basket. The pace waxes and wanes and inevitably some of the sketches work better than others. And when Matchbox Theatre catches fire it only every really smoulders with a dimmed Frayn brilliance.

I enjoyed the David Attenborough-style look at the stage hands that saw black-clad figures scurrying around a set moving props with exaggerated movements, communicating in high pitched squeaks. There was the clever Outside Story, where Hamlet is reimagined as a national news event (“there were rumours earlier that someone had seen a ghost!”). And there’s a lot of enjoyable theatre meta as Frayn breaks down the relationship between the audience and the actors, reality and the theatrical. Just before the interval we find Tim Downie and Nina Wadia in the audience (the characters don’t have names) riffing off the audiences’ interval regimes – and it’s very funny.

When the sketches don’t quite work, there’s no hiding in the exposed round with the audience as a seventh character, the actors occasionally addressing the front row and the stalls remaining partially lit. But this intimacy falls a little flat in a theatre as soulless as Hampstead where the audience always seem a little annoyed at having to be there.

Frayn likes to stretch farce and the unlikely to breaking point, his brilliant countryside set novel Headlong is a fine example of his expertise in dicing with the ridiculous with skill, but in some of these sketches don’t know when to stop. There’s a piece about a b flat french horn player whiling away his long moments of nothingness in the orchestra pit that falls as flat as flat as a b flat. Then there was the politician ranting about technology only to be called by his wife and a tabloid reporter asking him about an affair that felt a little dated and neither dark or funny enough to work.

While the characters were different in every sketch, the characteristics of each actor follow them through each piece. The cast play their parts with verve and a knowing nod to the theatrical, this is no po-faced drama, we are all in this together so bring your sense of humour – especially if you find yourself on the front row.

Matchbox Theatre | Hampstead Theatre | Until 6 June

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Theatre review: Golem, Trafalgar Studios (Studio 1)

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Golem at Trafalgar Studios

Written, directed, animated and largely performed by the often off-beat, always on-point 1927, Golem is shaking up the conservative West End with its gleeful, quirky and wonderfully imaginative comment on the technology takeover of our age.

In Jewish legend, a golem is a creature made from inanimate material, usually clay (in Hebrew, golem means shapeless mass), that is magically instilled with the power to take commands from its master. In legend, a golem usually becomes ever more powerful and ultimately destructive, in Golem, our clay man becomes a nightmare embodiment of our relationship with technology – like Frankenstein’s monster with an iPhone.

Golem’s master is Robert Robinson (a fantastic turn from Shamira Turner), a nerd who loves binary code and brown clothes. His instrument of choice in his sister, Annie’s, band – Annie and The Underdogs – is a keytar. Robert and Annie, a former librarian from a time when libraries existed, live with their Beethoven and knitting-loving grandmother. Robert has a mundane job in the Backup Department, “backing up the backup”, with four other like-minded geeks, writing out binary codes to existing computer programmes in preparation for the day the power goes out. He fancies Joy (a delightful Rose Robinson who plays Gran with equal relish), the Backup Department’s stationery cupboard manager who is wonderfully odd and whose dream it is to one day visiting the Pencil Museum in Keswick.

Robert’s world is changed dramatically the day he bumps into an inventor friend who persuades him to take home a clay golem he’s been tweaking, promising that this lump of clay will make his life far simpler. Golem, who looks like a, erm, very adult Morph, is animated onto the screen along with the projections of a city from a future that could be ours, with derelict buildings abandoned by the Russian oligarchs and hipster restaurants where the food is served in aspic.

Robert sets put Golem to work – literally, he’s now backing up the backup – but unbeknown to Robert, a sinister corporate company have also recognised the power of Golem and one day take over Golem’s mind. Like Dr Frankenstein, Robert soon discovers that his creature isn’t as pliable as he’d like and he’s soon in thrall to his powers.

Golem is simultaneously old fashioned and cutting edge. It has a fringe feel to it, but is as slick as any West End musical. Suzanne Andrade’s script is shot through with wit and poetic and knowing popular culture nods.  In among the fun and the surreal charm, are lots of on-point messages about modern life – the power of advertising, social media, those unseen trend makers and, of course, our slavish devotion to technology that is drilling holes in our communities, big and small.

Paul Barritt’s animation is more than simply a projected set, it’s an integral piece of a production that encompass several art forms including a jaunty live score (the drums and piano are played by Lillian Henley and Will Close respectively) that hints at Robert and Annie’s jazz-obsessed father.

I loved the numerous imaginative touches – the broken 7″ in punk fan Annie’s hair, the moth that rises up from the table when gran bangs it in frustration. I also enjoyed the hugely funny parodies of the more ridiculous aspects of modern life; Joy’s interview for her role at the Backup Department sent up job description cliches so perfectly and my friend and I were knowingly amused by Robert’s dalliance with internet dating (or what passes for internet dating in this production) after Golem persuades him to ditch Joy for being “a frumpy 35-year-old who is going to trick you into having a baby”.

Golem reminded me of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and was every bit as joyful, clever and thoughtful. The message may be stretched a little, but wrapped up in such wit and originality, Golem could have been saying nothing and it would have still been tremendous fun.

Golem | Trafalgar Studios | Until 22nd May

by Suzanne Elliott

Film review: Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

I could pick holes bigger than a haystack in Thomas Vinterberg’s reboot of Far From the Madding Crowd, but that would be churlish when I enjoyed it so much. My reasons aren’t terribly scholarly, but everything and everyone looked so sumptuous, it was as intoxicating as a balmy Pimm-drenched English summer evening.

Shamefully, I’ve never seen the 1967 Julie Christie-starring John Schlesinger film of Thomas Hardy’s brooding Dorset novel (if only Hardy had written more books along these lines). And, despite describing myself, when asked – which is never – as a Hardy fan, I hadn’t read the book. Of course, I knew about the bit with the sheep, and that shabby, handsome Alan Bates rather paled in comparison to dashing Terence Stamp as they both courted Julie Christie in her luminous prime.

What I didn’t know was that it was positively a rom-com – or, indeed a novel by David Nicholls, who wrote the screenplay – compared to Jude the Obscure. Hardy’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene is pretty badass for a Victorian era woman, especially in Carey Mulligan’s hands who relishes her character’s rebellious side. She also got to wear some terrific hats after she inherits her uncle’s farm and becomes lady of the manor, not bad for an orphan who we first meet toiling the land on her aunt’s farm in what looks like an H&M denim dress.

On her first day as mistress of the farm, her barn and harvest are saved from a ravishing fire by none other than Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who asked her to marry him in her lowly farm girl days (Gabriel looks like Matthias Schoenaerts so this was Bathsheba’s first mistake). He’s had a run of bad luck (that sheep bit) and is currently homeless and jobless. But his fortuitous fire-fighting skills secure him a job as chief shepherd on Bathsheba’s farm where he is free to look longingly at his mistress.

Bathsheba gains another admirer, her next-door-neighbour, a 40-year-old bachelor farmer, William Boldwood (played by the ever wonderful Michael Sheen). To amuse herself (these were the days before X Factor) Bathsheba sends Boldwood a Valentine’s card as a joke that misfires in typically terrible Hardy fashion. Hardy LOVES a coincidence and he enjoys the tricks that the cruel hand of fate plays on us mortals. For all of Bathsheba’s independence, she’s still a plaything for the gods, and a slave to her own fatal flaw.

Her fatal flaw arrives in the form of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a redcoat who is recovering from a broken heart after being jilted at the alter. Sturridge’s Frank is one of the haystack-sized holes I mentioned early. He is allegedly 29, but looks like he couldn’t order a pint of Scrumpy without being asked for ID. He’s a good-looking lad, but his Frank lacks the sex appeal that would lead an otherwise strong-willed, independent woman to lose her head (and knickers and farm). To be fair, it’s not really Sturridge’s fault; his Frank is almost a side note, his role cut down to one-dimensional size to fit the restrictions of a 119-minute production. This is a shame, but it’s not disastrous as it gives us more time for sun-tinged scenes of haymaking and broad-shouldered Belgium Schoenaerts making doe-eyes at Bathsheba (some might gripe that Schoenaerts’s Wessex accent is a little, erm, continental, but I’ll let that one go. See aforementioned doe-eyes).

As with all adaptations of classic novels, Vinterberg’s film of Hardy’s 1874 novel is also very much of its own time. David ‘One Day’ Nicholls’s script lifts Hardy’s characteristic gloominess to acceptable 21st century tolerance levels and Cary Mulligan – who largely is excellent – injects the odd modern intonation into some of her carefree pre-marriage dialogue. And, while it may not be a classic, leaving a cinema smiling after a brush with Thomas Hardy is as pleasant as a stroll along a Dorset cliff dusk (mad sheepdog incidents aside).

Far From The Madding Crowd | Released 1st May 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published by Picador)

Station Eleven, the fourth novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, is one of those books that lives up to the “unputdownable” cliche. It’s the kind of book you want to cancel dinner plans for, a book so good you’re glad when your friend is late meeting you at the pub, a book that you stay up until way after bedtime to read, squinting through tired eyes.

And all that love for a Science Fiction book too, a genre I generally approach with as much caution as if it were a radioactive alien. Not only that, but as a sensitive sap, I tend to avoid end of the world novels, steeped as they are in all-too familiar scenes of terrified people running frantically straight into the arms of whatever beast the author has chosen to slay humanity with.

Station Eleven is more considered, calm and measured than zombie stuffed end-of-civilisation novels and, while undeniably melancholy, there are hints of hope that lift it above the unrelenting gloom of many post-apocalyptic novels (hello, The Road). It is more than a story of human survival after the black hand of Georgian Flu picks off 99% of the human race, it’s about what makes humans tick – love and loss, art and music. It’s gripping, yet thoughtful and considered in a way thrillers can often forget to be in their hurry to tell the story.

The novel oscillates between pre-flu days and the years after it, largely missing the grittier details of the characters first troubled years following the collapse of civilisation. Mandel handles the structure deftly, giving us enough breadcrumbs of the characters’ fates for us to be eager to follow them through their journey. It begins in a theatre in Toronto just hours before the devastating outbreak of flu, where fading film star Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack while performing King Lear. Amongst the audience is Jeevan, a former paparazzo turned training paramedic (perhaps the least likely part of this story) who attempts to save Arthur’s life in vain, But his attention is caught by one of the three young actresses who, in an unusual (and really rather good) stage direction, appear to the deranged king as a hallucination of his three daughters when they were children.

One of them is Kirsten who was particularly fond of Arthur. In return, just before he goes on stage for the final time, he presents the child with a copy of Station Eleven, a hand drawn comic about a group of people taking refuge in space from a toxic Earth made by his first wife Miranda. The comic and Kirsten will outlive the flu and the devastating years following it, although both of them are battered and worn. In the intervening years, Kirsten has become part of a Travelling Symphony, a band of players who go from settlement to settlement reenacting Shakespeare and performing concerts.

As Jeevan shuts himself in his wheelchair bound brother’s flat with several weeks of supplies following a tip off from a doctor friend, Arthur’s oldest friend, Clark, is jumping on one of the last planes out of New York. Bound for Toronto, his flight is diverted to St. Deborah by the Water airport, a place he is destined to call home for the next 20 years. Amongst the other passengers is Arthur’s second wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and their son Tyler. As the story swings between past and present, the dots between the characters are joined, with Arthur – though long gone – at the centre.

Mandel is aware of the ubiquitous nature of end of the world literature and Hollywood’s version haunts the characters’ understanding of their predicament – how many times have we heard people, grappling to find a way of making sense of an awful event, describe it as like “something from a film”? But Station Eleven avoids many of the genres’ cliches, going deeper than just the human race’s battle to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The Travelling Symphony’s motto is survival is insufficient – a phrase from Star Trek, this is a book with a humorous vein – and it can also be taken to be the novel’s main theme. Art is a bolster, a comfort blanket as well as a reflection of truth. The band of actors performing Shakespeare 500 years after his plays were first performed in plague ridden London – a country now so distant in post-flight times as to be another planet; Miranda spending hours creating Station Eleven merely to be lost in the process; Clark curating his Museum of Civilisation – this is what keeps humans alive as much as bread and water.

Station Eleven is sad and a little scary, but ultimately hopeful. Civilisation is slowly crawling its way back to some kind of order by Year 20, but there is a certain appeal in the simple way of life forced on the survivors despite some very obvious dangers. I was left wanting more, but the book lingered in my memory like a melancholy tune.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Closer, Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

Rufus Sewell and Nancy Carroll in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse

First performed at the National Theatre in 1997, Closer was written in a time when popular culture was teeming with studies of overly-sexed, overly-stressed, overly-self-obsessed people and their relationships. This was an era of This Life and Queer as Folk, TV programmes where the world for the under 35s was both hugely fun and horribly messy and hurtful.

Marber’s tale of sex and love has survived the best part of two decades better than many of us, in fact, in a time when internet dating and Tinder seem to magnify the differences between what men and women want, Closer could be seen as even more pertinent. In 20 years, men and women are still doing badly timed dances around each other because ultimately neither gender knows what beat we’re dancing.

Closer is about love, sex and London – and not the shiny Michelin star laden capital of the 21st century, but the slightly bleary eyed city that saw out the millennium. Against this slightly grubby background is this weary, crude and poignantly funny tale of four people trying to reconcile the ultimate mundanity of love. The two female leads were transformed into glamorous Americans in Steven Soderbergh’s 2004 film, but they make far more sense as spiky British women more used to failure.

Marber’s story directed by David Leveaux’s on Bunny Christie’s stark set should be a depressing watch – essentially, it’s saying, heterosexual men and women may be deeply attracted to each other, but they are doomed to misunderstand each other. But the script is shot full of enough wit and Leveaux keeps any arm-flailing at bay for it to be an absorbing and intelligent watch.

The four-hander follows (deeply, or just normally?) two flawed couples over several years, all grasping for love that they can never quite seize. Daniel Woolf  (Oliver Chris) is at once a hopeless romantic and an utter rat in the way these two characteristics are often flipsides of each other. He meets Alice Ayres (Rachel Redford), a young, beautiful orphan, when he scraps her off the street after she’s knocked down by a taxi. Dan, an obituary writer who dreams of becoming a novelist, takes her to hospital where Alice chooses to fall in love with him because he cuts the crusts off his sandwiches. He’s bewitched by her youth and kookiness and despite having a girlfriend, believes her to be the one. Alice is briefly treated by Larry (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist who, in one of the many coincidences the play hangs on, Dan will, a few years later, set up with Anna – who he is now in love with – via a very funny exchange in an internet chat room. Dan first met Anna when she was taking his picture for the sleeve of his forthcoming novel that he’s finally written it. As he is prone to, Dan has become infatuated with Anna and so begins a circle of obsession and attraction between the four characters.

The characters are pretty damning representation of the human race, but they are not cardboard cutout villains, their very human flaws don’t distract from the appeal and the brilliance of a script full of those moments that resonant so much that you want to punch the air and shout ‘Yes. This’.

Marber’s brutal dialogue requires some pretty robust acting and the cast largely handler the script with conviction. Nancy Carroll was captivating as Anna, whose brittle efficiency hides a vulnerability that Carroll’s expressive eyes give away and I loved Rufus Sewell as Larry, a nice comic cadence cutting through the self importance of the other characters.

The Donmar’s production of Closer was good enough that the play’s niggles (the idea that Anna wouldn’t run a mile from a strange man in an aquarium who calls her a “cum-hungry bitch” even if he did look like Rufus Sewell; the beauty of the two women being so central to the story; what do these people talk about when they’re not arguing or snogging?) didn’t grate. As the production comes to an end, it remains to be seen if Marber’s play can survive another 17 years will as much spirit.

Closer | Donmar Warehouse | Until 4 April 2015

by Suzanne Elliott