Theatre Review: Three Days in the Country, the Lyttelton, National Theatre

Patrick Marber’s retelling of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country is witty and elegant, full of gags and Russian angst

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin ©Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country at the Lyttelton Theatre Amanda Drew as Natalya, John Simm as Rakitin © Alastair Muir

Three Days in the Country is Patrick Marber’s reboot of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, the action condensed into three days and this National Theatre production cut to two hours 15 minutes  versus the Russian playwright’s bum-numbing four.

Set in a grand country estate, the home of rich landowner Arkady (John Light), in the mid 19th century, Three Days in the Country has all the ingredients for a pre-revolutionary Russian tale of heartbreak and woe.  Class division? Check. Unrequited love? By the bucket load. A big house in the country, a weapon and an interloper whose thrown a spanner into the works? Da, da, da.

A languid air hangs over the stage, created here by Neil Austin’s lighting and Mark Thompson’s painted backdrop and spacious set, but behind this seemingly tranquil facade lie deep passions, betrayals and unhappiness. What, you thought a piece of Russian literature was going to be lighthearted and frivolous?

The outsider who is the catalyst for trouble is Belyaev, the handsome young tutor to Kolya, the son of Arkady and his restless wife Natalya (Amanda Drew). His arrival puts the household in a tizz and causes a fatal rift between Natalya and her 17-year-old ward, Vera (a brilliant stage debut by Lily Sacofsky) as they both fall in love with this enigmatic young man.

Also court in Cupid’s crossfire is an old family friend, Rakitin (John Simm), who has nursed a deep love for Natalya for 20 long years. Simm is excellent in the role giving a wonderfully composed performance that captures Rakitin’s bitterness, pain and desperation with real feeling.  

Despite the rather bleak path the story weaves (although compared to Chekhov this is Neighbours) there is a light touch to Marber’s witty script and the modern cadence to the dialogue gives Turgenev’s tale a fresh edge and a big dollop of humour. Mark Gatiss as the hopeless doctor, Shpigelsky, turns in a particularly fine comic performance that produces the funniest scene of the play, collapsing with backache during a bluff  proposal of marriage to Debra Gillett’s Lizaveta who was Gatiss’s comedy equal in a scene that threatened to steal the show. A less arthritic audience might have been rolling in the aisles.

Beautifully acted with great subtlety and space, Three Days in the Country is a lovely production that’s nicely paced and understated with just enough heart and soul.

Three Days in the Country | Lyttelton Theatre | Until October 21 2015

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Theatre Review: Here Lies Love, National Theatre

Natalie Mendoza (Imelda Marcos) in Here Lies Love. Credit Tristram Kenton

Natalie Mendoza (Imelda Marcos) in Here Lies Love. Credit Tristram Kenton

If there’s one thing everyone knows about the Former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, it’s that she loved shoes.

There are no mention of shoes in Here Lies Love (the inscription Imelda once said she wanted on her gravestone), but the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim penned musical about Imelda’s colourful life will certainly have you metaphorically donning your dancing shoes.

Here Lies Love is a frenetic, energetic slice of pure fun (and a little history). It follows Imelda from her humble-ish roots in the small town of Tacloban where her family were well to do enough to keep a servant, Estrella Cumpas (an endearing Gia Macuja Atchison), but not rich enough to pay her. Imelda dreamt big from the beginning and after winning (in this version, according to Wikipedia she actually came second) the local beauty contest and being dumped by first love Ninoy Aquino (Dean John-Wilson) for being too tall, she heads off to Manila where she catches the eye of budding politician Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista).

Based on a concept album written by Talking Heads‘ David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love is full of sassy charm and feels genuinely different. What it might lack in West End polish, it makes up for in enthusiasm and (largely) properly good songs. There are a couple of the usual musical meh numbers, but if you don’t come away singing title track ‘Here Lies Love’ you have a harder heart that Imelda at her most ruthless.Even I, who is allergic to forced clap-a-longs and queasy about over zealous theatrics, found myself bopping along (safely in my seat).

The set is a nightclub, complete with rotating platforms, inspired by Imelda famously converting one of her New York houses into a disco (OF COURSE) and Alex Timbers’s pacey direction immerses the audience into the camp frivolity. I was sitting, but down in the stalls the audience find themselves on the dancefloor and it was an awful lot of fun watching  British theatre goers shuffle self-consciously from my position on the balcony.The staging also features video projections and newsreel footage of the time – there’s a LOT going on.

Here Lies Love may be fabulous fun, but it has also has heart. Natalie Mandoza plays Imelda Marcos with force, but also reveals the First Lady’s tender side with some rousing ballads and the lyrics convey the human story behind the ruthless politician.

But above all, Here Lies Love is an energetic and exciting production and a dose of disco tonic.

Here Lies Love is at the National Theatre until 8 January 2015. For tickets and more information, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A Small Family Business, The National Theatre

Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken

Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken in A Small Family Business

There’s been some talk recently about whether theatres have become too reliant on old favourites rather than taking a punt of new drama. Shakespeare often has the finger pointed at him for his ubiquity, but Alan Ayckbourn is surely a contender for most (too?) often staged.

Ayckbourn, as all creative people should be, is a decisive figure, often dismissed as lightweight and twee by critics who don’t like his family-centric comedies. But he’s certainly a hit with the late middle aged home counties set, who within mainstream theatre at least, usually make up the largest chunk of the audience, so each Ayckbourn is a bums-on-seat cert.

While not being – quite yet – in my late middle-age, I for one have always rather enjoyed – admittedly through half closed-eyes – his over-the-top family farces that border on the distasteful.

A Small Family Business, widely-regarded as one of Ayckbourn’s best and more biting plays, premiered at the National Theatre in 1987 and returns to the Olivier with a grand set and a solid unstarry cast. The production keeps the 80s setting, so we get some ironic 21st century wink-wink moments about CD players, but on the whole, with its themes of greed and self-interest, this is an era-transcending play.

It’s the story of Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay), a good man with morals so rigid that his wife, Poppy (Debra Gillett) is constantly bumping her head on them in an attempt to keep him and their two daughters in the style they have become accustomed to. He’s just been recruited into his in-laws furniture firm to help re-address its recent misfortunes and soon discovers that he is an island of integrity amongst a sea of fraud and greed. Will Jack throw his good guy towel into the immoral ring or stick to his principles? As an Ayckbourn play it’s unlikely to end with everyone happy…

The play is a long one and while it smoulders amiably, it never really catches fire. The problem I found with A Small Family Business was that it felt, well, rather small. The Olivier theatre is a huge space to fill, both physically and historically, and this production felt a little lost in its hallow walls.  Tim Hatley’s elaborate set didn’t help; the suburban house that stood in for all the characters’ homes looked impressive – it’s bigger and probably sturdier than my flat – but it rather stole the show, swamping the cast and and creating some problematic blind spots. I’m used to watching plays behind pillars and through rails, but one of the Olivier’s great bonuses is its democratic seating; you can usually see as well in the gods as you can in the front row.

A Small Family Business is billed as a black comedy, although it brings into light relief the gruesomeness of human nature too vividly to be truly funny. There were noticeably few laughs throughout this production; the S&M jokes went down like a deflated  blow-up doll, whether they went over the audience’s head or, as I think, because they got rather lost in the hullabaloo.

There is much to admire about the production, the choreography of the staging and the understated acting in what is a less than subtle satire on Thatcher-era avarice. Nigel Lindsay is a captivating, impressive Jack and the other actors are accomplished more overblown foils to his solid presence.  Matthew Cottle as Benedict Hough, the private investigate brought in by Jack to save the family business only to then try and sabotage it, was genuinely creepy as the plot reached it high-pitched crescendo.

The National’s A Small Family Business was still in the preview stage when I saw it and will no doubt have some its bagginess tightened by press night. It’s a good, solid production with plenty of enthusiasm that just doesn’t feel quite big and fresh enough.

by Suzanne Elliott

For tickets and more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

 

 

Theatre Review: The Light Princess, the National Theatre

Rosalie Craig as The Light Princess

Rosalie Craig as The Light Princess

The Light Princess, the Tori Amos-scored, Samuel Adamson-written, Marianne Elliott-directed musical was contentious even before it reached the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre, its many delays hinting at trouble at t’musical mill.

When it (finally) opened in early October, it met with mixed reviews; critics were far from universally convinced it was worth the wait. The Daily Mail’s curmudgeon critic Quentin Letts practically choked on his quill in his review, scoffing: “Lord knows what sort of mushrooms they were serving in the Royal National Theatre canteen when artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner agreed to stage this peculiar musical”.

A self-styled ‘feminist fairy tale’ fuelled by magic mushrooms? Sounds ace.

And I thought it was. This modern re-boot of a 19th century short story by George MacDonald has  a magical heart, a lavish dose of glitter and goodwill and some rousing, feel good choruses. The Matthew Bourne-esque scenery, all iridescent lakes, puppet rats and gothic towers added to the production’s charm and wit.

The musical tells the story of Althea, the Light Princess of the title, who is left gravity-less after her mother dies and she is unable to cry. Locked in a tower by her once-kind father, King Darius of Legobel (a bombastic Clive Rowe), she is content to spend her days floating and reading classic stories. But when her brother dies, she is forced by her father to take on his military role in the fight against Legobel’s neighbours, Sealand. Meanwhile over in Sealand, Prince Digby (an excellent Nick Hendrix) is so weighed down by grief following his own beloved mother’s death, that he’s nicknamed the Solemn Prince. Digby is put in charge of Sealand’s army and leads his troops towards Legobel where he easily overcomes the enemy. On his victorious route back he bumps into Althea who was trying to avoid the whole skirmish. And they live happily ever after… or do they?

It’s difficult to imagine The Light Princess being even half as delightful without Rosalie Craig’s wonderful central performance as the weightless Althea. Her singing voice is both powerful and controlled, her solos conveying emotional punch without attention-seeking warbles or showy offy extra notes. And she does a lot of her singing upside down, or ‘floating’ – held up by nothing more than supersonically powerfully-thighed acrobats (the black-clad, silent stars of the show).

The sprinkling of feminism may have felt forced in other environments, but there was a real sincerity and ballsiness to this production. Althea isn’t a ‘strong’ woman because she’s ‘feisty’ and ‘fearless’ – the usual lazy shortcut for a non-doormat woman – these traits weighed her down even if they did render her gravity-less. It was only when she shook them off, shedding heavy tears that released her from her emotional shackles that she felt powerful again.

My main motive behind wanting to see the show was Tori Amos’s score, although this was perhaps the weakest part. Some numbers showed flashes of Amos’s brilliance, but much of the score was repetitive and flat, although lifted by the performers and the excellent and enthusiastic orchestral and the chorus scenes were suitably rousing.

The Light Princess is magical escapism; perfectly snug, heart-warming theatre-fodder for the days before Christmas that ditches (some of) the whimsy of fairy tales of yore for a modern, sassy, inclusive production.

by Suzanne Elliott 

Theatre Review: Hymn/Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett, The National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

I spent one summer working in Primrose Hill and the occasional lunchtime highlight was spotting Alan Bennett on his old-fashioned woman’s bicycle complete with wicker basket. He always seemed to be going to the Post Office. The whole effect – the bike, the wicker basket, popping to the Post Office and his thick rimmed glasses – was just like watching a character from one of his plays.

And here he is in one of his plays. Or rather, not him, but the remarkable Alex Jennings who inhabits the playwright’s awkward self-possession with such brilliance that there are times when I wondered if this was a double bluff and that it really was Bennett. His own mother would probably have trouble telling them apart. And here she is, or rather her dramatic ghost, played so beautifully by Gabrielle Lloyd in the second of the afternoon’s short plays, Cocktail Sticks.

Both Hymn and Cocktail Sticks see Bennett revisiting territory from his memoir A Life Like Other People’s, recalling his pre-poncy Primrose Hill days and reflecting on how his quiet, uneventful early life came to shape him and his work. The first play, the short but very sweet Hymn, is a musical memoir where Bennett’s words share a stage with George Fenton’s clever score and a string quartet (plucked from the Southbank Sinfonia). Fenton’s score is evocative of a bygone England, weaving Elgar and Delias into his original work while at one point providing sound effects to the memory that lies at the heart of Hymn. Hymn spins on the moment Bennett’s father, a keen and accomplished violin player, attempted, with little success, to teach his son his beloved instrument. Bennett laments that his father’s disappointment at his son’s inepitude would “outlast the violin and my childhood, and go down to the grave”. *Sob*.

Themes and storylines naturally overlap into Cocktail Sticks, a piece that is both a homage and atonement to his eccentric yet utterly normal parents. The play is everything Bennett has come to encompass – unearthing the funny, heartbreaking and poignant in the ordinariness of life – telling the story of how he got to understand that there was art in the everyday.

The play begins with him remonstrating with his mother about his undramatic, happy childhood, a childhood so devoid of incident that he claims (this is twenty one years ago, after Bennett had already found success on the West End stage) it’s given him nothing to write about. “We did our best. We took you to Morecombe”, “You played out with your friends”, replies his unmoved mother. “I bet Proust didn’t play out with his friend,” mutters Jennings’ Bennett later to none other than J.B. Priestley who momentarily walks into the Bennett’s domestic setting.

The piece starts after the death of his father; his mother now in a home in Weston-Super-Mare, when Bennett is clearing out the family’s kitchen cupboards and discovers a box of cocktail sticks. Bennett then oscillates between the years, resurrecting his parents to quietly demand questions and atone for his embarrassment of them that reached a peak during his time at Oxford. The portrait of his mother is particularly moving as we watch her slip from vague disappointment to depression and finally dementia. Mrs Bennett was a woman who dreamed of a life beyond bus rides to Skipton and trips to the cinema, convinced everyone else was sipping cocktails with prawns in them while she sat at home drinking tea. Her desires were simple – to hold a cockTAIL party, but the stench of dripping that wafted up from Mr Bennett senior’s butcher’s shop that the family lived above and her husband’s aversion to alcoholic drinks barred her entry to this glamorous world.

“I’ve been reading about these cockTAILS”
“They’re COCKtails, not cockTAILS”

“Yes, cockTAILS”
“COCKtails, the emphasis is on the tail not the, oh never mind.”

In lesser hands, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks could be twee or, worse, patronising. After all both plays rely on us, the audience, (we’re at The National here, so it’s largely white, middle class Londoners and those fresh off the train from Dorking) laughing at two working class northerners and their distrust of avocado pears. But Bennett’s deft touch ensures that we’re not laughing at them, but at him, at us – his happy parents don’t seem like the naive ones compared to our 21st century lust for drama and revelation that have brought us no-where. The performances also prevent it slipping into a nostalgia/lets-laugh-at-the-funny-northerners show. Lloyd and Jennings I’ve already mentioned, but Jeff Rawle as Mr Bennett senior also brought the right amount of gruff northernness to the role without falling into Last Of The Summer Wine territory.

This is a beautiful, tender piece of theatre with is written and performed with real affection and is as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking.

Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, The National Theatre until March 17 2013. Transfers to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End from March 22 2013 for a twelve week run.

by Suzanne Elliott