Theatre review: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre, London

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Following her Oscar winning performance in Stephen Frear’s 2006 film The Queen, Helen Mirren once again slips into Elizabeth II’s sensible court shoes in the West End smash, The Audience.

She does it with such aplomb that I wonder whether the actual real-life Queen, standing “we are not amused”-like watching The Script at Radio 1 wishes she could employ Dame Helen as her life understudy. Or if one night she might fancy treading the boards and coming on as herself in The Audience. Although, she’d probably get panned for not playing herself as well as HRM (her Royal Mirren). For The Audience is as much about Mirren as it is about the Queen.

The audience refers to the weekly meeting between The Queen and her Prime Minister, a ritual that’s found it’s way into the British constitution allows the PM to discuss matters – both state and personal – of the day and the Queen to drop in a few sensible words of advice (usually: resign). David Cameron is the 12th PM to sit opposite her Maj once a week; if he dies suddenly before the next election then Nick Clegg will be her 13th, something Peter Morgan’s Lizzy II would no doubt see the funnies in.

Peter Morgan was also the man behind 2006’s The Queen, and he picks up (his no doubt souvenir Buckingham Palace) pen again to write this wholly fictional account of this very private ritual. No minutes are kept and even QE2’s trusted servants are banished from the room. No PM has ever blabbed about their weekly 20-minutes with The Crown and The Queen has yet to take to Twitter to spill the beans on what Cameron and Clegg really think of each other. So Morgan has little but rumour, Prime Ministers’ reputations (Thatcher’s demented; Major’s a cry baby) and imagination to go on.

The play, which behind the green curtain of its star performance, is slight and pantomime-light, at times careening off into caricature status – like Spitting Image without any of the  caustic humour, most of the PMs’ reputations are left remarkably unscatched – manages to be bigger than the sum of its parts thanks to HM, who is brilliant. She takes her 2006 role and adds humour, a dash of political flair and a dose of every-dayness to her Maj’s little chats with our dear leaders. Or some of them at least, there are notable absences, most obviously no Blair (was that to avoid The Queen comparisons? Is he too recent and complicated a leader to distill into a non confrontational script?).

Morgan spins the word on the (Downing) street that no-nonsense Labour man Harold Wilson was her favourite Prime Minister (some say after Churchill, but that wouldn’t have made quite so an amusing face-off). Shamefully I know little of Wilson, in fact most of my knowledge on the Labour leader came from a recent reading of Ian McEwan’s (brilliant) Sweet Tooth. But I doubt very much he was anything like the rude, naive, over-awed, “oop north’ buffoon he’s depicted as being in this play. But I enjoyed the Queen’s and Wilson’s moments, played out like a tale of friendly understanding across the great class divide and Richard McCabe’s Wilson did have most of the best lines – I particularly enjoyed his take down of Balmoral and the current Monarchy’s German ancestry.

Inbetween her tete-a-tetes, which aren’t told in chronological order, there are flashback scenes of a spirited Elizabeth as a young princess struggling to come to terms with her future as a Monarch. The scenes, designed to add a humanness to HRM, a humanness I’m not particularly interested in and I think adds little value, left me a little queasy, not helped by the young Queen coming across like the eighth member of the Secret Seven (the Esoteric EightEnid Blyton’s great, unfinished novel).

The Audience is sentimental, at times almost mawkish, but it’s charming, if unchallenging and often very funny. And it’s been a long time since I saw quite such a standing ovation…

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

Theatre Review: Great Expectations, Vaudeville Theatre, London

ImageA recent Guardian survey identified Great Expectations as the nation’s favourite Charles Dickens tale, and, with two movies, a BBC mini-series and a Charlotte Rampling-starring tv film all having been released in the last 15 years, there’s no denying Great Expectations pull. It’s Charles Dickens’ Pride and Prejudice.

The latest take on this enduring classic is Jo Clifford’s adaptation for the stage whose 1998 script was updated by director Graham McLaren for Dickens’ bicentenary last year and now makes its London debut at the Vaudeville Theatre.

So what is it about Great Expectations that catches people’s imagination more than any of Dickens’ other works? I suspect that the allure lies with the doomed romanticism of the cobweb-covered Miss Havisham, perhaps Dickens’ most beguiling character. This production certainly seems to think the jilted old lady lies at the heart of our fascination with the story, setting the entire play in Satis House as an older omnipresent Pip (Paul Nivison) watches over the ghosts of his past.

Condensing a novel as complex and long as Great Expectations meant extracting the essence, dispensing with the subtitles and trimming the characters down to their bare bones, which this production did with mixed results. The wonderfully daft Herbert Pocket becomes a small, if rather amusing, turn on a mantlepiece while the dastardly Bentley Drummond gets consigned to fondling Estella over a table for five minutes. The other minor characters fare better in most cases, Chris Ellison’s menacing Magwitch was a particular standout while Jack Ellis as Jaggers walked just the right line between caricature and characterful. Paula Wilcox’s Miss Havisham (pictured) was as bitter and desperate as we’ve come to expect, but was rather underused.

The set is the show’s trump card, a magnificent, dusty creation with all the cobwebs and moudy wedding cake of our imaginations vividly brought to life. The atmosphere is gloomy and sinister although the gothic feel is more Camden Market than Victorian, not helped by the ‘ghosts’ wearing black nail varnish and a young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies) resemblance to Placebo frontman Brian Molko.

As visually delightfully as this production was it felt, ultimately, as cold as Estella’s heart. The very stagey, ‘am-dramminess’ of it that made it a theatrical spectacle stripped the story of its sincerity and warmth. The emotion seemed forced – there was a lot of moments when the actors strained to bring tears to their eyes when a more subtle and less desperate direction would have been more moving. And what was with the constant use of the characters’ names (“I know Joe”, “yes, Pip”, “It’s not right, Joe”)? The affection came across like a nervous tick.

A fun, frivolous piece of theatre that is absorbing if ultimately rather unfulfilling.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A Doll’s House, The Young Vic

Booked during the soggy, grey late June days that seemed doomed to be our summer, an Ibsen play on a glorious July evening suddenly seemed all wrong.

But the Young Vic’s recent production of the Norwegian playwright’s A Doll’s House was so absorbing that it was easy to forget the enticing sunshine outside as I became wrapped up in the domestic drama that heated up on stage. Ibsen, like so many of those famous foreign names, seems, to the uninitiated, so impenetrable, as dark and bleak as a Norwegian winter. But, like so many of those heavyweight names, his writing has endured because it’s the opposite of those preconceptions – it’s so human and accessible. In reality Ibsen’s dialogue, particularly in the hands of Simon Stephens’ sharp translating pen, is quick, witty and enthralling with an unexpected lightness.

A Doll’s House centres around a middle class family in the 19th century as they get ready for Christmas, with Nora Helmer at its emotional centre. Ibsen is of course casting his net far wider than the Helmer’s home, he’s using this small domestic scene as a device to reveal the plight of women at the tail end of the 1800s. Not that Nora could be described as an every woman – she’s wealthy and beautiful with the self of entitlement that those two pieces of luck bring you. But this gives even greater emotional pull to her moment of clarity.

Nora is the quintessential pretty girl who’s used her looks as currency to buy a life she thought she wanted. Closeted and controlled since birth, first by her late father before and then by the handsome, but superficial and controlling, Torvald – a man so self-obsessed that when he hears his good friend Dr Rank is dying his first words are “I knew I wouldn’t have him for long.” – she suddenly metaphorically wakes up and finds herself trapped in a world she longs to escape. Ibsen peppering Torvald’s dialogue with bird nicknames (‘skylark’ ‘swallow’) for Nora are, perhaps, rather unnecessarily heavily-loaded ironies.

Ian MacNeil’s fantastic set was so attention grabbing that it took on a life of its own. The revolving rooms not only brought the ‘doll’s house’ to life, but also added a filmic quality to the play, its tracking-shot style keeping the momentum going and in turn keeping Nora ‘trapped’ inside the house and the story.

The actors were all fantastic, but special plaudits must go to Hattie Morahan who captures Nora’s fragility, intelligence, manipulative selfish-ness – her humanness. Sometimes you wanted to slap her round the face (she’s a terrible friend to Susannah Wise’s Christine Linde) but Morahan also makes you like her to the extent that your heart breaks along with Nora’s as she makes her agonising decision (Stephens’ left out Ibsen’s final, ambiguous line – he clearly doesn’t believe they’ll be a reconciliation). The final scene is wrenching, such is the pain of Morahan and Dominic Rowan’s Torvald, that it’s almost unwatchable. Nora’s heartbreak is so raw that is was no wonder Morahan looked drained as she came out to take her bow for the curtain call. That’s not to say it was all bleak. I almost forgave Torvald all his self-obsession and shallowness after Rowan’s brilliantly funny drunk scene following their neighbour’s party. This was no one-dimensional brute, just as this wasn’t a one-dimensional production of Ibsen’s multi-layered masterpiece.

by Suzanne Elliott