Theatre review: Teddy Ferrara, Donmar Warehouse

A largely engrossing production becomes a little tangled in its issue led web 

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara

Ryan McParland as Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse

Based on the true story of Tyler Clementi, a student who killed himself after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in their room, Christopher Shinn’s University Campus drama makes its British debut at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Teddy (played brilliantly by Ryan McParland) of Shinn’s play is an outsider in many ways. He’s awkward, odd and gay – a freshman struggling to establish himself against a world resistant to difference. He hangs around on the periphery of things, instantly forgettable to everyone, even those who are well meaning like Luke Newberry’s Gabe, the charming head of the queer students’ group. Bullied and ignored, Teddy never gets to graduate.

Teddy’s suicide is the catalyst for dialogue between the University President and representatives from the college’s minority groups in a bid to improve conditions and attitudes for homosexuals, trans-gender and disabled students. These conversations are the play’s backbone – a tennis match worth of self-interested ideas batted back and forth – played out alongside Gabe’s bid for student president and his relationship with his jealous boyfriend Drew and his unlikely friendship with jock,Tim (Nathan Wiley).

Dominic Cooke’s production is terrifically acted, and the first half at least is a powerful piece of drama that hits a xylophone’s worth of excellent points. Shinn asks us to examine are own prejudices and the need for us to be honest about them, something represented in Gabe, who, as the play’s ‘good guy’, is possibly the post blinkered of anyone – he certainly has two of the most horrid and flippant lines that make the audience vocally gasp.

But while the writing and acting are pin-sharp, the narrative arch is a little flabby. Shinn tries to tackle too much – Teddy Ferrara throws lots of issues up into the air and the pieces never really fit together as they fall to earth in the second half.

The production does produce some great acting. Matthew Marsh is outstanding as the insincere university president and senate member in waiting. Luke Newberry (currently playing bumbling young policeman in From Darkness) as Gabe is compelling as a self-righteous student whose struggling with relationships, friendships and his own ambitions. Ryan McParland and his snotty nose strikes such a vulnerable figure as Teddy that he’s difficult to watch (especially with that snotty nose).

Teddy Ferrara is a an uncomfortable watch, too uncomfortable for some as the empty seats after the interval revealed. The woman behind me who left, commented to her friend that while the play was “interesting” it’s “not our world” which I would say is the very reason to stay. Theatre is as much a portal into other world as it is a reflected of our own. This reaction rather reinforces Shinn’s and this production’s point that the mainstream is reluctant to raise the issues of those they cast aside.

Teddy Ferrara magnifies society’s defects. It’s hard hitting and bleak yet curiously unemotional. There are some funny moments (many courtesy of some excellent comic timing of Marsh) but Shinn’s script is taunt with politics. But it’s a gripping, insightful piece of theatre. See it – and stay.

Teddy Ferrera | Donmar Warehouse | Until 5 December 2015

Theatre review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O'Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O’Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Abi Morgan’s gripping, tense tale set against a brewing revolution held me captive  

Set in the opulent palace of a dictator (who we never meet) of an unnamed country in the grip of civil war, Splendour is a taut, tight, tense play that’s ice cool and compelling.

A photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), personally invited by the dictator to take his portrait, arrives at the palace accompanied from the airport by an unreliable interpreter, Gilma (Zawe Ashton), a young jittery woman from the war torn north, hiding her real identity out of fear.

The tyrant is not there, but his wife Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) is there to greet – admittedly not with open arms – Kathryn. Hair as rigid as her grin, last season’s Prada handbag clutched to her body, her pony-skinned heels clip-clopping on the marble floors and standing her ground even though it’s littered with bodies – Cusack’s Micheleine is like a uber-glossy Margaret Thatcher (star of course of Abi Morgan’s The Iron Lady).

The three of them are joined by Micheleine’s best friend of 35 years, Genevieve, a brittle, bird-like widow who has been held emotionally hostage by her powerful pal for reasons that become clear towards the end. She arrives dripping wet from the falling snow, dressed like a World War 2 landgirl whose dug one too many potatoes, urging Kathryn to study the painting by her late husband that hangs in the room (we never see this either).

Across the river, and seen from designer Peter McKintosh‘s huge stately windows, the south side of the city burns under a barrage of bombs. The main roads are blocked by caravans of refugees fleeing the bombing, the back roads thick with treacherous ice. The four women are locked together in this moment that may change them forever.

Splendour is a splintered, yet ultimately tidy tale, Morgan’s script employs some dexterous dialogue that skips between time and language. There’s no linear structure and parts of scenes are repeated with different characters delivering the lines, intertwined with their internal monologues. It sounds complicated, but Robert Hastie‘s neat production that punctuates each part with – literally – a bang helps bring the themes and story arc together while also reflecting the bombardment outside.

Western photographer Kathryn doesn’t speak the language of the country she’s in so relies on the translator Gilma – who, as Kathryn says “is an interpreter who can’t interrupt”. The script is all in English – there are no attempts at dodgy foreign accents – and language and concealment are key themes, while images are held up as reflections of the truth. Genevieve hides her real feelings for her friend; Gilma stashes video tapes and shot glasses in her bag while Kathryn keeps her heart locked. The real truth of how Genevieve’s husband sees his ‘best friend’ – the dictator – is revealed in his picture and Kathryn seeks to tell the truth of conflict through her lens.

The ensemble cast are all fantastic. Cusack as Elnett-fan and Imelda Marcos alike Micheleine is poised and controlled as she watches her riches and power crumble around her. I particularly enjoyed Michelle Fairley as the broken yet steely Genevieve, her performance was beautifully controlled, yet you could sense the emotion seeping through her pores. O’Reilly was cool, considered and captivating as the photojournalist, a rather weakly written character on Morgan’s behalf but pumped full of life by O’Reilly. Ashton as the jumpy, conflicted Gilma also impressed with a punchy performance.

Splendour | Donmar Warehouse | Until 26 September 2015

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

Theatre Review: Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd's Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

Ann Ogbomo (Worcester) and Harriet Walter (King Henry) in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. Credit: Helen Maybanks

If theatre – or anything for that matter – can be semi-immersive then Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV is just that. The Donmar Warehouse has been converted into a prison (not too much of a push considering its institutional architecture) for the duration of Lloyd’s all-female production and there’s some very theatrical security on show. You start the evening over the cobbled street at the grandly named Covent Garden Member’s Club (more grudgey than Groucho), before being frog-marched (in a fashion) to the Donmar, where you’re shown to your seats not by smiling ushers, but fierce looking prison guards.  

As fun as this was, I’m not sure this over-enthusiastic scene-setting really added anything to Lloyd’s excellent production of Henry IV besides further highlighting how much the director has ripped up the Shakespeare rule book. In this all-female production, Shakespeare’s tale of kings has been condensed into one play that’s being performed by the inmates of a women’s prison.  We are never told why these female prisoners chose to put on one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays, but it’s not hard to see why a tale of bullying, ‘gangs’, violence and redemption may resonate with those accustomed to sleeping ‘in filthy hovels, stretched out on uncomfortable cots’.

This is more Henry IV Part 1 with the end of Part 2 tagged on. I enjoyed this edited highlights approach; while much is lost in the furious trimming, Lloyd’s production benefits by bringing the cracking key scenes into sharp relief – although Hal’s swift journey from boisterous barfly to worthy warrior and noble king was perhaps a little jarring.

The all-female cast are fantastic, everyone of them convincing as a Shakespeare character while never allowing their contemporary prisoner roles to be forgotten. Clare Dunn as an athletic, cocky Prince Hal was a great foil to the majestic Harriet Walter as the stern, guilt-wracked Henry IV, but it was Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff, a character I usually can’t stand, that I loved. Falstaff is, in the productions I’ve seen, played as a fat, jokey piss-take punch bag, which of course he is. But he’s also a horrid man – cowardly, lying, stealing, nasty, self-obsessed, his disregard for ‘honour’ essentially a reluctance to do anything that won’t further his own fortunes. McGuire brought out Falstaff’s nasty side, highlighting his pomposity rather than his good-time bravado. Maybe because Falstaff is the kind of man who is particularly repellent to women (witness his barbs to poor Mistress Quickly) that meant McGuire and Lloyd weren’t afraid to make him more than the play’s joker.

I usually find myself nodding in agreement when at the end of Part 2 Prince Hal (now Henry V) rejects Falstaff with a “I know ye not, old man”. But this time McGuire’s performance and her reaction to this betrayal as a female prisoner as well as a sack-swilling slob, sobbing while the guards tie her wrists with plastic wire, was genuinely moving.

There were the occasional well-positioned slips into the present day that increased the impact of the production, reminding us that we weren’t watching a straightforward play about  a monarch fighting for his kingdom and heir. Hearing Shakespeare’s posturing, masculine dialogue in the mouths of women with *gasp* regional accents stripped away the stuffiness that can strangle a Shakespeare production and their delivery and the staging served to accentuat how contemporary Shakespeare’s language can sound. When McGuire’s prison alter ego slips from character during the scene where Falstaff is hurling insults at Mistress Quickly and throws in a few choice words of her own, the distinction was barely noticeable.

Single gender Shakespeare productions, especially those set in the modern day , always run the risk of seemingly contrived, but Lloyd’s production brought out the emotional heart of the play while losing nothing of its original intensity.

For tickets and more information visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.

Theatre Review: My Night With Reg, Donmar Warehouse

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel) and Lewis Reeves (Eric) in My Night With Reg, the Donmar Warehouse

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel) and Lewis Reeves (Eric) in My Night With Reg, the Donmar Warehouse

Nearing the end of its run at the Donmar Warehouse, Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg is firecracker of a production directed by Robert Hastie that’s has more than proved its worth on its 20th anniversary revival.

Despite its 80s/early 90s setting and the advances in both HIV treatment and gay rights (although lets not get carried away, things still have a long way to go) , My Night With Reg feels fresh and punchy, its emotional pull as strong as it would have been when it  debuted in 1994. It’s a play that deals with difficult themes, but it’s not a difficult play to watch.

My friend said My Night With Reg reminded her of Abigail’s Party as, like noisy old Abigail, Reg is conspicuous by his absence and it’s all set within one living room. My Night With Reg also has that mix of comedy and lightly-played darkness and deep sadness. The first ‘half’ (the play runs as a continuous for 1 hour 45 mins with the three segments moving fluidly into each other) of the play begins at Guy’s (Jonathan Broadbent) flat warming. It’s 1984 and characters’ lives are largely careless and frivolous. The first (early) guest is John (Downton Abbey’s Julian Ovenden) the louche, handsome object of Guy’s decade-long unrequited love. Inadvertently joining the party is handsome young Brummie Eric (Lewis Reeves), there painting Guy’s conservatory. New to London, he’s the confident, savvy voice of a future generation.

Guy is heart-breaking figure. Universally liked, desperate to please, he’s continually overlooked and overshadowed by his funnier, ruder friends. His most successful relationship is with a sex line worker called Brad whose USP is to bark like a dog. Meanwhile Guy’s puppy-dog eyes at John remain unreciprocated. Bursting in on the awkward party of three is Dan (one half of the ministerial duo ‘The Inbetweeners’ in The Thick Of It,  Geoffrey Streatfeild) who is fantastically camp and inappropriate, his toasts to ‘sodomy’ and ‘gross indecency’ summing up a life of fun and frivolity that is about to screech to a half.

The play deals with time beautifully, there’s a barely a pause before we’re back in Guy’s flat, Dan now sombre, the group swelled by Bernie (a wonderful Richard Cant whose fantastic study of a boring man creates a hugely watchable character) and his boyfriend Benny (Matt Bardock), a cocky bus driver, cue bus innuendos). But their number is also depleted; this is Reg’s wake and his won’t be the last we see.

My Night With Reg isn’t just about death, it’s about growing old, friendships and love. You’re as likely to be crying with laughter as you are with grief. And it’s not just the dead you’re crying for, it’s the loneliness of those they leave behind. Sadly, Kevin Elyot didn’t get to live to see his play revived on its 20th anniversary as he died in June this year, but his play will surely live on, not least in your head long after you’ve seen it.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse; Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

The hottest tickets in London town for the past few months have been for plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years.

Of course it helps that most of these sold out, selling-on-eBay-for-£2000-a-pop shows feature handsome famous men taking on some of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles (although even David Tennant in his now ended run at the Barbican may have struggled to make soppy sap Richard II meaty). But whether it’s prose or pecs drawing the crowds and winning the critics, there’s no denying the pull of Will.

My weekend was bookended by two very different Shakespeare productions. The first was the much talked about Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse starring the much talked about Tom Hiddleston. Since beginning its run in December it’s has had some quarters in such a tizz that people have been prepared to spend a huge amounts of farthings for a ticket for this sold out run.

There’s not a lot I can add to the chorus of Coriolanus praise; it’s every bit as powerful, thrilling and exciting as the critics have said. It’s a physical, visceral, brutal production that also has moments of reflection and humour. It’s stark simplicity and the almost post-apocalyptic feel of the set and costumes reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios production of Macbeth last year, although Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a far greater force than James McAvoy‘s rather lacklustre Scottish murderer.

Hiddleston could stand on stage in the humble smock he’s forced to wear after Caius’ one-man victory in Coriolis and still emit a room-captivating magnetism. But he doesn’t rest on his charismatic laurels, giving us a soldier who is far more than a sword brandishing brute. That said, he does angry very well; he’s so intimidating as a thoroughly pissed off newly-elected senator unable to engage in – or even injure the idea of – winning the hearts and minds of the dirty masses that he had me agreeing with him about this “us and them” business.

Although he does a damn good job of trying to steal it, this isn’t entirely Hiddleston’s show. Deborah Findlay is wonderfully, almost sinisterly, controlling as Caius’ overbearing, power lusty mother Volumnia who discovers the hard way that second hand heroism is great until your son gets kicked out of Rome. Shakespeare’s comedy characters are sometimes the least funny people in his plays, happily in Mark Gatiss’ Menenius Agrippa this is not the case. He manages to be languid and amusing, but also subtle and sensitive, avoiding caricature pitfalls. Hadley Fraser does a good job as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, playing up the lustiness of Shakespeare’s verse like a desperate man who knows he’s out of his depth (and league).

As Caius’ wife Virgilia, Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen has little to do but look sad, sew and stroke Coriolanus’ face when his mum isn’t looking, but not all of Shakespeare’s women are quite so one note. Over on the other side of the river at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Eileen Atkins delivered a much more sedate, but no less moving evening  bringing some of Shakespeare’s more vibrant female characters to life with a one woman performance as legendary actress Ellen Terry.

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is every bit as captivating and arresting as Atkins’ performance and the candle lit theatre was the perfect setting for this wonderful, if too brief, production that highlighted the awesomeness of some of Shakespeare’s female characters that are so often dismissed (including by myself) as insipid and weak.

The quiet courage, quick wit and intelligence of, amongst others, Juliet, Desdemona and Beatrice was brought to mesmorising life by Atkins, delivering an amalgamation of two of Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women while weaving into them some of their greatest speeches as well as dropping tantalising details of Terry’s glamorous life as a Victorian stage actress.

Shakespeare’s famous speeches were so comfortable in Atkins’ mouth and she was such an engaging presence that it was a real wrench when she backed slowly off the small stage to Ophelia’s final speech “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night”.

But it’s always good to keep your audience wanting more; Shakespeare knew the secret so well that we’re still wanting more and more of him, lapping up his words four centuries since they were first written.

 by Suzanne Elliott