Theatre review: The Homecoming, Trafalger Studios

Harold Pinter’s dark 1965 play The Homecoming gets the Jamie Lloyd treatment

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John Simm in Trafalger Studio’s The Homecoming

Pinter’s mid 60s play, The Homecoming, isn’t an easy watch, and the Trafalgar Studios’s production directed by Jamie Lloyd, tightens the tension screws even further to produce a play that’s claustrophobic, dark and, obviously, funny.

The Homecoming is about an ill-fated family reunion in north London, rife with ghosts, bitterness and violence. Teddy, the eldest of three sons – is the family’s ‘success’ story, visiting for a few days on a break from his university job in the States with his beautiful wife, Ruth (Gemma Chan). Of course, the perfect life Teddy hopes to dazzle his suburban family with isn’t quite what it seems, and his smokescreen pretty much turns to dust before he’s even unpacked his toothbrush.

His father, Max, is an old school Londoner, played with real malice by Ron Cook. He over sees the family like a cut-prize gangster, all simmering anger and seething violence. Keith Allen plays his brother Sam, who lives with them, as an ‘obvious’ homosexual. Pinter’s portrait of Sam is far more subtle – not least because in 1965 homosexuality was still illegal – but the part is given an obvious otherness by Allen and he largely pulls it off without straying into limp-wristed territory .

Lloyd has once again ensembled a cracking cast. Of the three brothers – Teddy (played by Gary Kemp, has a reviewer described his performance as ‘gold’, yet?), John Macmillan as the youngest child, Joey, it’s John Simm’s Lenny who dominates. Simm is in fine menacing form, prowling the stage like a wounded bouncer. Simm is a very still actor, in fact this production generally was noticeable for its lack of hysteria – with dialogue this punchy no one should be hand-acting. The movement that Lloyd does incorporate is restrained, the actors moving around the stage like synchronised robots or geriatric former-dancers.

The Homecoming is a brutal play, it’s menacing and uncomfortable and Soutra Gilmour’s staging adds to the intensity. Set within a framed cube, the actors are caught in aspic, accentuating the claustrophobia of the play – they are like figures in a particularly vicious chess game – while the floor mirroring a blood-smeared butcher’s shop.

The Homecoming is also about a very particular point in history, a time when the Second World War was still casting its long shadow over the generation it ensnared, when kids still played on bomb sites, when people’s sexuality was the business of the law, when working class men were expected to be macho and women compliant. Historically we look back at 1965 as a time when London was swinging, but in some parts of town the only swinging some people were doing, were punches. Counter culture had yet to break through, despite the rumblings of change, not least due to playwrights like Pinter.

I found The Homecoming a difficult play to like, it’s just so nasty and the whole sordid ending with Ruth had me actually squirming in my seat – although that’s testimony to Chan’s cool acting that had me so invested in this difficult character. Does she have a voice, can she use her sexuality as a means to end? I’m not so sure, she seems like such a victim. But as ever, Pinter allows plenty of space for us to fill with our own interpretations, so let’s hope in someone’s else’s head she’s a winner, just as Lloyd and Trafalgar Studios are once again.

The Homecoming | Trafalgar Studios | Until 13 February 2016

Theatre Review: The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy as Jack Gurney and Kathryn Drysdale as Grace Shelley in The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

Having seen a few rather pedestrian, slightly flabby plays recently, watching Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me and every bit as refreshing, exhilarating and – at times – uncomfortable.

Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a messiah complex, Jack (James McAvoy) has been hidden away in a mental health institution for many years where he was treated by a Dr Herder (Elliot Levy). Following the death of his father in a rather 1990s MP style accident, Jack inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney and much to the annoyance of his family – notably his uncle, the ghastly Sir Charles Gurney (a brilliantly terse Ron Cook), Jack checks himself out of hospital determined to throw himself into his new role.

Shadowing him is Herder who believes he can cure Jack before his family disinherit this mad upstart. The play riffs off the similarity between an entitled a member of the ruling classes with a seat in the House of Lords and a paranoid schizophrenic whose messiah complex marks him out as unwell when his symptoms are strikingly like those he shares a house and a House with.

With a play as frenetic and as politically charged as Peter Barnes‘, no director could approach The Ruling Class with timidity. Jamie Lloyd, whose Trafalgar Transformed series has proved he’s not afraid to turn the theatrics up to 11, approaches The Ruling Classes with the required gusto. Equally as committed is James McAvoy as Jack Gurney whose performance is one of the best – and bravest – I’ve seen on stage. He’s very well supported by a brilliant cast particularly Anthony O’Donnell as the once trusty now mostly tipsy butler Tucker, but the production is McAvoy’s who even manages to convince during the balmier and borderline toe curling music hall moments.

Another star is Barnes’ script which is astonishingly dexterous. He threads through the themes and changes in tone to the narrative with an ease that defies the rapid pace and the subject matter which is far more searing than the comedy of the play lets on. For all the play’s radicalness – and I can presume it was particularly radical in 1968 – Barnes’s writing is peppered with Shakespearean and Biblical references that are added to the stew of theatrical influences of music hall and Ealing comedies.

The production is fittingly insane and gets even more surreal the better Jack gets.  I found it eyeliner ruiningly funny, even the obvious jokes had me giggling (I saw an Etonian buffoon talking LOUDLY and sloooowly to the foreign Helder, but still laughed like a loon). And while there was a charming surrealism to The Ruling Class, it’s grounded in its political agenda and Barnes doesn’t flinch from his criticism of a morally bankrupt upper class and the profiteering of those at the top at the expense of people further down the class chain. This play may have been written in the 1960s, but it highlights the huge divide between the Haves and Have-Nots that is more relevant today than it has been for years.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lloyd’s production has proven a divisive one; I can see how people could be squeamish to its frantic pace, unsubtle political message and the play’s more surreal moments that, at one point, see McAvoy unicycling in his pants. This production chucks it all at you and you either enjoy the jolt or you recoil. I relished every caustic slap. by Suzanne Elliott The Ruling Class | Trafalgar Studios | Until 11th April

Theatre Review: The Pride, Trafalgar Studios

The Pride at Trafalgar Studios

Mathew Horne, Hayley Atwell, Harry Hadden-Paton and Al Weaver in The Pride at Trafalgar Studios

When I last left the Trafalgar Studios after Jamie Lloyd’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse, I was still chuckling from the play’s sheer physical force of farce (I merrily ignored the final, macabre scenes, seeing only Simon Russell Beale and a large piece of Christmas cake). But after watching The Pride,  Lloyd’s latest in his Trafalgar Transformed series, my tears weren’t of laughter, in fact I barely made it out the door – such was its power, it had welded me to my seat.

I went into The Pride knowing nothing more than it followed the changes in attitude towards homosexuality through the interweaving of two different eras, one set in 1958 and another in contemporary London. My ignorance payed off; not knowing anything about it meant it packed an even bigger punch and made some of the surprises particularly funny (Mathew Horne in a Nazi uniform was not something I ever expected to see, let alone find it hilarious – you have to trust me on this one).

I was right about one thing, the story is about a couple – Oliver and Philip – whose lives are mirrored (literary thanks to a clever and rather beautiful set design) across five decades. The play opens in 1958 in the home of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his wife Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) who has invited her boss, writer Oliver (Al Weaver) out to dinner with them. Suspecting her husband is shielding a side of him from her and the world, Sylvia has contrived the whole meeting and claims not to be surprised when the two men embark on a, then illegal, affair that has far reaching and heartbreaking consequences for all three of them.

Fast forward 55 years and a contemporary version of Philip and Oliver are in the middle of a messy break-up thanks to Ollie’s addiction to anonymous sex (this is where the Nazi uniform comes it). Their lives are in so many ways easier than their mirrored images, but society still hasn’t freed them from the chains of lazy stereotyping and off-the-cuff ignorance that can be just as damaging.

Writer Alexi Kaye Campbell’s taunt script swings violently from trivial and funny to ferocious and heart-wrenching. He allows us to acknowledge and appreciate how much has changed for homosexuals in this country in the past half a century, but we’re not allowed to rest on our smug 21st Century laurels, a point highlighted in the curtain call when the cast bring out placards bearing the slogan “To Russia, With Love”. Atwell’s modern Sylvia delivers a pitch perfect speech as her and Ollie settle down to watch Gay Pride in the play’s final scene about the darker, less obvious undertones that build stereotypes – “tell you who you should be”- that are knocked down by those that make them.

The Pride is as powerful a piece of theatre as I’ve seen for a long time. Theatre, for all its intimacy, can feel cold and sterile, its hyper-artificiality diluting the intensity and emotions. But The Pride has a real humanness to it, it’s all too believable. It’s cry-with-laughter movements segue into gut-wrenchingly sad scenes. It’s terrifying, tender, brutal, brave and honest. But while it’s an important play, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the brilliant acting helps contain any amateur dramatic trip wires that the script may contain.

The actors were all on blistering form. Al Weaver as Oliver was particularly moving, inhabiting his meek ancient Greek loving 1950s Oliver with a sweetness and hope, while he tempered the flippancy of his modern Ollie’s campness with a sadness and a genuine desire to grow out of his lost boy past. Hadden-Paton was perhaps more at home in 1958, but his sensible 21st century incarnation was a nice foil to Ollie’s hysteria. And we all know Hayley Atwell can act the tea dress off a period piece as if she were born wearing Chanel Rouge, but she played her sweary modern day Sylvia with a deft lightness of touch that made her the perfect (potty) mouthpiece for a generation.

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

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

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James McAvoy as Macbeth

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth is the inaugural play in a season of work for Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios and it’s a brutal, intense, powerful and physical piece of theatre that’s restless and electric from the minute the three witches emerge from trap doors.

The ‘stage’ is a post-apocalyptic vision – all upturned metal chairs and utility tables; the characters in filthy army fatigues – in a non-determined time that could be the near past or near future. It was very 28 Days Later; the starkness adding its own neurosis to Shakespeare’s play about the occult and the blood-thirsty and power-hungry.

Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t need histrionics to stir the emotions and get the heart thumping, but the savagery of the newly configured stage and the physicality of this production sidelines the hocus pocus and brings out the bloodiness and horror behind the witches and ghostly daggers.

This has been billed as a James McAvoy vehicle, but it’s far more than that. If anything, McAvoy threatens to be overshadowed by both the powerful staging and the other actors. There’s been some debate (well, an article in The Independent) as to whether McAvoy is too young to play Macbeth. Shakespeare never specifies his age, but the character has traditionally been played by those in their late 30s or older. McAvoy – and his partner in crime Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth for that matter – might not be too young, but they look it, and their baby faces do make it harder to believe that these are two power-hungry tyrants who go around thrusting daggers through children’s heads. But while McAvoy might not quite convinced as a warrior, he does mad very well, writhing on tables and spitting out his demons with a rabid intensity.

Lady Macbeth has become shorthand for the ultimate malevolent wife, but she’s not purely evil. An ambiguous character, she’s a woman who begs to be bad, but ultimately isn’t bad enough – the last remaining speck of goodness is what ultimately leads to her demise. Still, she’s manipulative enough to persuade her husband to kill the King of Scotland while many women can’t even persuade their partners to make them a cup of tea so she’s no sweetheart.

The super slight Foy though, doesn’t look like a grand manipulator and I’m not sure whether it was her youthfulness that meant I didn’t quite believe in Foy as Lady Macbeth. A great angsty actress, Foy rather struggled to fill Shakespeare’s great villaness’ well-worn shoes, never quite seeming powerful and strong enough for a woman who could encourage her husband to commit regicide. For an actress who usually excels in shouty parts, Foy was at her best during the sleepwalking scene when she caught the vulnerability and fear of the Lady’s
nocturnal stirrings very movingly.

McAvoy and Foy were ably supported by a brilliant cast with standout performances from Forbes Masson as Banquo and Jamie Ballard as Macduff while Allison McKenzie’s brief turn as his about-to-be-murdered wife was eye-catching.

The screams of delight from the adolescents in the audience (of which there were many) is testament to the pull of a Hollywood star, but this is far more than a one-man show.

Macbeth is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April 2013. For ticket information, including £15 Monday tickets, click here.