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: The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre

Myanna Buring and Sinead Matthews in The Wasp

Myanna Buring and Sinead Matthews in The Wasp

The Wasp is a smart two-hander in which Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script explores the impact of childhood experiences on our adult lives in a dark, if sometimes camply absurd, thriller with an ending that is as swift and sharp as a sting.

Despite the gulf in their social backgrounds and upbringings, Carla (Myanna Buring) and Heather (Sinead Matthews) were best friends until year eight when things went a little Lord Of The Flies. Twenty years later, we meet them in a cafe where a heavily pregnant Carla is chain smoking while Heather, all lattes and pashmina, stutteringly explains why she wanted to see her former friend again despite the cruelty she inflicted on her.

Their meeting is nervy and heavy with secrets, we all know that Heather hasn’t simply arranged to meet Carla to talk about her marriage woes with her husband Simon or her fertility problems. As they drain the last of their tea and Carla stubs out her final cigarette, the story takes a sharp twist and with a swift set change, we’re in Heather’s magazines-on-coffee-tables-“shoes-off” house where things are about to get even darker.

Even in the confines of Heather’s middle-class sitting room, the play continues to wring out increasing bleak secrets. What specific incident has scarred Heather so deeply that she’s consumed by it twenty years later? And how far is this “Guardian-reading, left-leaning” woman prepared to go to help heal her wounds?

Lloyd Malcolm’s script occasionally loses focus and there are a few moments when the characters have to dig themselves out of a plot u-turn, but when it’s en pointe, The Wasp is absorbing and laced with enough black humour to cancel out its more absurd moments.

Myanna Buring is brilliant as Carla – during a scene when she finds herself in a situation stickier than a cobweb, she’s devastating in her fear and vulnerability. Sinead Matthews has a harder time with Heather; she’s a jittery, not quite fully formed character and Matthews never quite got the character’s rhythm right, losing some of the vital humour in her agitated delivery (this was a preview performance). But the ending helps to make sense of Heather a little and completely underpins the story with an assurance that erases any niggles.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Wasp, Hampstead Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre until 7 March

Theatre Review: Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter theatre

John Dagleish as Ray Davis and George Maguire as Dave Davis in Sunny Afternoon. Credit: Kevin Cummins.

John Dagleish as Ray Davis and George Maguire as Dave Davis in Sunny Afternoon. Credit: Kevin Cummins.

Sunny Afternoon is a trip down dead end street, the story of The Kinks told through the band’s songs penned by frontman Ray Davies and playwright Joe Penhall. As one of Britain’s greatest songwriters, Davis’s lyrical narratives lend themselves nicely to a stage musical about the life of the band both on and off the stage and his (and brother Dave’s) melodies are natural crowd pleasers.

The Kinks were misfits in the 1960s, scruffy Cockneys with none of The Beatles’ pretty boy good looks or the Rolling Stones’ stylish swagger. From the beginning there was much internal squabbling, with Ray’s brother lead guitarist Dave (whose band The Kinks originally was) a constant spiky presence. The prickly, cross-dressing Dave Davies is played with gusto by George Maguire has recently, and deservedly, been nominated for a What’sOnStage award for Best Supporting Actor in a musical. He’s a Scrappy Do-like character, always gagging for fight or a party – brawling with drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and swinging from the chandeliers in sequins the next.

Sunny Afternoon follows the band from their inception in the Davis’s north London (pre-organic sourdough times) living room to an ill-fated American tour and their first Number 1. There’s class warfare, pitting the talented Muswell Hill hillbillies against Oxbridge types in double breasted suits, and many internal fall-outs (bassist Pete QuaifeNed Derrington – eventually quits the band in frustration). And there are the songs, many gloriously melodic songs, from the hard guitar riff of ‘You Really Got Me’ to the sublime ‘Waterloo Sunset’.

But the production stays the right side of positive, in fact you could argue it rather white washes some of the darker bits (Ray’s depression, his divorce from his childhood sweetheart who we meet in this production, played by Lillie Flynn). The story ends triumphantly with England winning the 1966 World Cup, resulting in a finale that is a real highlight, an infectious proper on-yer-feet celebration that encapsulates the swinging and a nation riding on the high of a World Cup win (or our rose-tinted ideal of what 1966 was like).

Sunny Afternoon premiered at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, where it was a sell-out smash. West End transfers can be dodgy things; a play that worked in an intimate space outside a W1 postcode can feel swamped in a bigger venue. And Sunny Afternoon feels a little lost at the Harold Pinter despite the great songs, triumphant set pieces and the response from a thrilled audience.

But it would be impossible not to have fun at Sunny Afternoon; any production soundtracked by The Kinks is going to be toe-tappingly fun and as good as the performances are, it’s the songs for me that were the real stars.

by Suzanne Elliott

Harold Pinter theatre, London. Booking to May 2015. Tickets: 0844 871 7622; sunnyafternoonthemusical.com

Theatre Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Seminar follows that well worn dramatic set piece that takes a group of unlikeable people and puts them in a situation that will push buttons to the point that hard truths will emerge and, bingo! Drama!

In this case, the situation is a weekly writing seminar led by a once successful novelist turned  legendary editor, Leonard (Roger Allam). The group meet once a week at Kate’s (rent controlled) Upper West Side apartment. Kate is a rich, white girl with a bitter and ultra-sensitive streak that Leonard identifies and picks at with a brutality that leaves her stunned and the rest of the group cowering.

Leonard is one of those aggressively male, charismatic old school American writers (Jack Kerouac gets referenced more than once, so take your cue from that). He’s bullish to the point of being a bully, but, hey, the ladies love him. He rips the soul of out of the stories his students have written, but while they may be peeved, they’re still desperate for his approval.

Finishing the mismatched quintet is Douglas (Oliver Hembrough) who is a privileged young man. We know this because of his socks (bright pink then baby blue) paired with deck shoes and his off-stage uncle, who rubs shoulders with the great and not so good. He opens the show with a brilliantly stupid monologue, but then rather fizzles away, subdued by Leonard. Hembrough’s face during Leonard’s take down of his ‘whorish’ work would have been heartbreaking if he wasn’t wearing bright pink socks. Joining them is Izzy (Rebecca Grant), a hyper sensualised woman whose motivations are unclear other than that she loves sex and the male gaze. Happy to both look and touch her is Bryan Dick’s grungey Martin who could be the nice guy of the group if he wasn’t such an insensitive drip.

Of course, these five near-strangers rub each other up the wrong way (although actually many of the problems arise from them rubbing each up the right way), igniting a smouldering cauldron of egos, sexual tension, envy and bitterness until it boils over.

Still in its preview stage, there was a little stiffness to the production that will no doubt ease into itself as the actors inhabit their roles and the script’s sticky parts come unstuck. Not that the performances weren’t very good in what must be a tricky play to get the tone of right. Kate is very White Company, all cashmere cardies and Sauvignon Blanc. She could be one of those irritating stage women that playwrights seem to love – shrill, humourless, super sensitive – who stomps about on plush carpets brandishing a wine glass like a weapon. Full credit then to Charity Wakefield who brings a natural vulnerability to what could be an abrasive role and makes Kate, and her cashmere wardrobe, relatable.

I’m a Roger Allam fan, he is the production’s big draw and he was an engaging Leonard, although I think he needed a bit more force behind him. He wasn’t quite ferocious enough, the cracks in Leonard’s character were a bit too transparent from the beginning.

Written by Pulitzer Prize nominee, Theresa Rebeck, Seminar is witty and wry with some sound observations on writing  and writers and, overall, it’s an astute study of the jealousies, the slog, the tedium of being a human as well as a writer.

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

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Raving, Hampstead Theatre, London

Robert Webb and Tamzin Outhwaite in Raving

Robert Webb and Tamzin Outhwaite in Raving

Last time I was at the Hampstead Theatre I saw the riveting, moving Di and Viv and Rose, starring former EasterEnder Tamzin Outhwaite.

Tamzin’s back at the Hampstead Theatre once again, this time playing a wobbly-lipped mum on a mini-break in Wales with five people she doesn’t like very much (one of them being her husband) in Simon Paisley Day’s comedy of not so much errors as howling blunders.

Raving has been pretty much universally panned by the critics, all except the Daily Mail, whose theatre critic Quentin Letts thought it was a bona fide classic (‘bona fide’, by the way, has a small starring role in Raving), which is worse than all those two-star reviews.

Raving is not subtle; it’s like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer of stereotypes and Carry On worthy smut. At times, in fact most of the time, it’s crass, brash and utterly daft. The characters are straight out of the writers’ book of stereotypes; the set-up no more imaginative (three mish mashed couples in a holiday cottage in Wales); the plot – what there is of it – as revolutionary as an episode of Last of the Summer Wine. Throw in an ill advised sexual assault on a 17-year-old as a gag and you have, in theory anyway, the recipe for the year’s worst play.

But despite all that’s wrong with it, I rather enjoyed Raving. It’s easy, unchallenging and well acted theatre. It may not be clever, but it is, at times, funny, and while it may not say much about the human condition like, say, Ibsen, it says uncomfortably too much about the times we live in.

Tamsin Outhwaite is ‘neurotic’ (read: depressed, I did say it wasn’t subtle) Briony who along with her partner Keith (Barnaby Kay) are having their first weekend away together since the birth of their son, three-year-old Fin. Briony’s still breast feeding which is a source of several of the jokes, some better than others. Their impossibly perfect friends Ross (Russell Brand-botherer Robert Webb) and Sarah Hadland’s Rosy (those of the liberal pretensions, but Daily Mail heart) have organised the cottage in the Welsh countryside. Filling in for another couple at the last minute are poshos Charles (Nicholas Rowe) and Serena (Issy Van Randwyck) who Briony had minutes before their arrival been ranting about their awfulness. Cue one hell of a class clash. Ironically considering it’s five star review, the couple who the Daily Mail hold up as custodians of society (employed, white, middle class, stay-at-home mum) are the very ones who fall the furthest as they are exposed as the racist, snobbish, self-serving hypocrites they are behind the doors of their million-pound-plus homes.

To add to the melee of disorder is Serena’s niece Tabby who likes sex and drugs and talks like she’s sitting at the back of the N29. She’s more overdone than a burnt steak and about as appealing. She is a useful Eve to lure out Ross’s true character under that smug PR schtick, but otherwise a rather heavy handed distraction.

The ‘episode’ where Ross preys on her prone 17-year-old sleeping body is badly judged and, at best, distasteful, although justice of sorts if dished out to Ross whose future looks bleaker than the London November sky at 4pm.

This isn’t the only WTF moments in Raving, although it’s the most unappetising. Other niggles include how would resolutely middle class R&R know hunting-shooting-fishing Barber-wearing C&S? And why would Serena make a comment about being too far away from the ‘metropol’ when surely her and her red cord wearing husband’s natural inhabit is in a field?

Props must go to the actors who lift what could have been an embarrassment into an enjoyable two and a half hours of farce. Raving may be no masterpiece, but it’s a fun piece of very modern theatre with some laughing-into-the-back-of-your-hand moments mixed with some cringe-worthy clangers. This isn’t a play for everyone, but if you don’t mind full-on silliness and can look past the ‘erm, awkward’ parts it’s escapist fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Di and Viv and Rose, Hampstead Theatre

Di and Rose and Viv

Gina Mckee, Tamsin Outhwaite and Anna Marie Maxwell in Di and Viv and Rose

There’s nothing earth-shatteringly inventive or innovative about Amelia Bullmore’s tale of three women’s decade straddling friendship, but Di and Viv and Rose has more impact that most po-faced Plays With A Message. Absorbing and compelling, it fulfills the ultimate critical cliché of being snortingly funny (I confess to finding the more risqué lines especially funny imaging what the post-60 crowd – the vast majority of the audience – made of it) and mascara-troublingly sad. It was so moving in fact, that I struggled to gain my composure even as the lights came up.

Female friendship has been explored in books, films and plays before, although not as often, truthfully or as warmly as such a rich subject matter should demand. I was struck as I watched this how little I’ve seen honest, realistic portrayals of women, particularly on stage. There are even fewer with no agenda. Bullmore doesn’t ask us to judge her characters or force a theatrical lesson down our throats, we’re simply asked to laugh and cry along with these three young women whose friendship begins in the cold corridors of a university halls of residence in the 1980s and survives into the 21st century, conquering childbirth, an ocean, rape and heartbreak.

Di (Tamsin Outhwaite) is a straight-talking term-time lesbian (we never do learn whether she eventually comes out to her mum, but it’s not important) who brings bubbly sex-mad Rose and uptight bookish Viv together in their first year at university. The three mismatched friends go on to share a house where they eat food from wobbly bowls and drink-dance to Prince (the soundtrack is fantastic). But it’s not all warm and cosy; there’s a huge change of pace and tone as horrific real-life events force there way (literally) into the girls’ carefree world. The actors respond brilliantly to the jarring turn, absorbing the effect the events have on their characters without being mawkish or overly-dramatic.

All three actors were fantastic, I particularly warmed to Anna Marie Maxwell’s Rose whose posh frivolousness could have been deeply irritating but who Maxwell instilled with a hugely likable naivety and warmth. A lot is demanded of Outhwaite’s Di and the former EastEnders actress more than delivered; Di is no one dimensional ‘tough girl’, Outhwaite plays her with the right dose of vulnerability, self-belief and self-awareness. Gina McKee’s quietly ambitious Viv is an introvert with a steely confidence, you might not immediately warm to her but McKee’s natural gentleness will win you over (also, I LOVED her ‘war’ wardrobe, it was also a great way of moving the play away from being too much of an 80s period piece).

Di and Viv and Rose has finished its run at Hampstead Theatre, but I’ll bet you a Prince CD that it won’t be long before it makes it to the West End.

by Suzanne Elliott