A universal message from The Starry Messenger at Wyndham’s Theatre

The Starry Messenger

Thursday 16th May 2019

We’ve been waiting a long time to see Matthew Broderick on the London stage.  For a while, there was talk that he might come over with the Broadway production of the musical version of ‘The Producers’ back in the early noughties, but nearly twenty years later, we were very pleased to find that we would finally see Broderick in the West End, in a play by Kenneth Lonergan, who we have admired for a long time, ever since seeing his plays ‘This is Our Youth’ and ‘Lobby Hero’, and his subsequent films.  This play, The Starry Messenger is a revival from ten years ago, and more than deserving of a trip over the pond.

The play, like a lot of Lonergan’s work, is not exactly plot-driven.  It revolves around an astronomer, Mark Williams, who feels he has probably ‘gone as far as he can’ in academia, and is now getting by on various lecturing jobs, including a beginner’s class for adults at the planetarium, while he watches his former students overtake him on the career ladder.
It is hard to describe the plot, as Broderick hilariously found when he appeared on the Graham Norton show and was amiably berated by the host for not selling his appearance in the West End sufficiently well.  What we can say is that Lonergan is a master chronicler of the human condition.  Astronomy is the perfect starting point, and we have never thought of the ironic counterpoint between the vastness of the universe and the challenges of comprehension it presents to atheists and believers alike, and the banality of the work which has led us to better understand it.  So, on the one hand, Williams is criticised by his pupils for being insufficiently inspiring, and yet he is still so enthralled by astronomy that at the age of 52 he is prepared to take a basic data entry job on a research project just to be part of something bigger.

Matthew Broderick has the great challenge of portraying this ‘boring’ character without being boring.  He pulls off this miracle by being disarmingly authentic.  His delivery is confident with a small ‘c’ – he is unhurried, he does not feel the need to ‘dramatise’ the material, he does not attempt to ‘engage’ his audience.  The result is an inner stillness that lets us in to this small, uncertain, world.  We are also treated to some top-quality passive-aggression from a master of the art.  Perhaps our favourite moment is the interminably long gap between being ruthlessly critiqued by one of his students and the expletive-filled reposte which follows long after he has left the room.  This is a performance well worth waiting for and an object lesson in how to allow the writing do its work.

Elizabeth McGovern pitches her performance as Williams’ long-suffering wife perfectly.  At first she appears to be a lightweight foil for Broderick’s brooding persona, airy, optimistic and apparently oblivious, but by the end we learn what supreme effort goes into maintaining her cheerful demeanour as she tries to manage a household with a man who won’t make decisions with her, but blames her for everything.  Never has the repetition of the phrase ‘Can we talk about Christmas?’ at various stages in the evening taken on such portent as it does here.

Rosalind Eleazar portrays Angela, a young woman who decides to add further complications to her already busy life by having an affair with Williams.  She brings a freshness and warmth to the play as a character who wears her heart on her sleeve, and the comic chemistry with Broderick is a pleasure to watch.

Sam Yates has gathered an impressive cast for all his supporting characters.  We have the legendary Jim Norton, known for playing Father Ted’s nemesis Bishop Brennan in the channel 4 series, coming through a brush with death at the hospital where Angela works, to give her the spiritual advice she needs; we have Jenny Galloway, the original Mrs Thernadier from Les Miserables, as a student who is desperate to learn about astronomy (we never quite find out why) but just doesn’t get it, as she loudly proclaims at every opportunity.  Sid Sagar entertains as the student (there’s always one, isn’t there?) who feels the need to provide unsolicited feedback, a task he is determined to complete in the face of overwhelming indifference.

We’ve got a feeling the running time may shorten a little during previews, but this is a meaty play, unapologetic about its 3 hour plus running time, and full of insight and humour – it doesn’t feel a minute too long.

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An Evening at the melancholy manor: Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s

Saturday 27th May 2019, evening

It’s been a while since we were tempted into the West End for Kenneth Branagh’s takeover of the Garrick Theatre.  The combination of Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell in a new Ibsen play (new to us that is), directed by Ian Rickson, who impressed us so greatly with his direction of Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, seemed like a winner.

It’s no coincidence, we feel, that the play is named after the Manor House rather than the characters that live in it.  Possibly the most important character in the play, symbolising the constraints of society, the house dominates the village, and Rae Smith’s design has it looming large over the action, so much so that it almost felt like we were sitting in the drawing room.

In this new adaptation by Duncan MacMillan we are reminded how current Ibsen’s themes remain.  Set on the eve of an election, Rosmer, the young master of the house, is assailed on all sides by friends and old acquaintances wanting him to lend his ‘voice’ to their cause. First his former brother-in-law, who fears chaos if the ordinary people are put in control, then his radical former tutor.  Meanwhile, he discovers that his closest female friend and confidante Rebecca West (the character who gave her name to the famous feminist author), has infiltrated his home in order to ‘turn’ him to radical politics, but is now in love with him.  Former pastor Rosmer, who is already struggling with his faith and his identity, soon has to face up to the hypocrisy of politics, where it is suggested that he will only be of use if he continues to profess to be a Christian.

The play is not so much a drama as an exploration of the myriad ways in which two people can make themselves miserable.  Ibsen is a master of the inner landscape of the mind.  Whilst everybody around them assumes that they are already lovers, we see that it is not just social constrictions but their own peculiar combination of guilt and lack of purpose that ensures they will never be free, or think that they will never be free, which in the end comes to the same thing.

Rickson’s direction allows the story to play out without fuss – the real-time action is excruciatingly minimal, but the re-evaluation of the past which each character must undergo re-writes the story constantly, with an unforgiving pay-off at the end.
Hayley Atwell is utterly convincing as Rebecca, a woman who believes she will lose her integrity as a person if she marries, but whose ideals are being eaten away by her passionate longing for Rosmer.  Tom Burke has a refreshing lack of pomposity, at odds with his social and political status, allowing us to glimpse the emptiness of a man who feels he should ‘do something’ but literally does not have the courage of his convictions.  However, we were not convinced of the chemistry between the two.

In a strong supporting cast, Giles Terera stood out as Governer Kroll, whose benign bemusement at the lack of support from his former brother-in-law is enough to show where the real power lies, whilst Peter Wight’s touching portrayal of the impoverished radical turned scrounger Brendel is epitomised by the eagerness with which he devours the leftover fermented trout at the dinner table.

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Driving Miss Olive: Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 30th March 2019, matinée

Little Miss Sunshine seems like perfect material for William Finn – it’s a quirky film full of dark humour, and continues the theme of child exploitation which he explored in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  Here it is the world of beauty pageants with the unlikely heroine Olive showing her dysfunctional family the meaning of the word optimism.  There is luxury casting here too in the form of Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Paul Keating.

Based on the 2006 film, this is a classic feel-good plot, given a ‘makeunder’ and a dose of reality as the hopelessly chaotic Hoover family attempt to get their daughter Olive to the regional finals of the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ beauty pageant in a beaten up old minivan. With Mum Cheryl and Dad Richard already feeling the strain, brother Dwayne under a vow of silence, and Grandpa now homeless having been kicked out of his retirement home for taking drugs, they are joined by Cheryl’s brother Frank, who needs to be kept an eye on due to his recent suicide attempt (‘Don’t worry’, she reassures the kids, ‘He didn’t try very hard’).

So, with an amusing premise, interesting characters and the comedic potential of a road trip, what could possibly go wrong?  The production team have given themselves a massive challenge to stage a road trip in the small space of the Arcola theatre, and it is a tribute to Mehmet Ergan’s directorial skills that he manages to make such a slick job of it, but it is difficult to keep the momentum going.  Although the dialogue is snappy with plenty of witty lines, there are also longueurs that could probably have been cut.

The next question would be, what, if anything, does the music add to the story?  Music should be a short-cut to the emotions and perhaps illuminate the relationships, but here the songs seem to hold up the action.  There are too many characters vying for attention, but no individuals have enough depth to sustain the solo songs, which also seem a bit thin.  There doesn’t seem to be a unifying theme or a character arc for the family. Considering the show is all about the tawdry glamour of talent shows, we couldn’t help feeling there were some missed opportunities here.

The cast were excellent overall, and it was hard to fault the ensemble playing.  We did feel that Laura Pitt-Pulford was a little under-used – perhaps if William Finn had been more involved he might have written her an extra number to show off her considerable talents.  Paul Keating, last seen by us in the Goodbye Girl, brings a melancholic and neurotic edge to the show, nicely offset by Gary Wilmot’s outrageous Grandad – it’s a gift of a part and he enjoys it to the full.  The supporting cast also provides a few gems – Ian Carlyle as the compere perfectly captures the small-time, preening local businessman looking for glory, whilst Imelda Warren-Green gives us the world’s most unempathic ‘bereavement co-ordinator’, and a beauty queen whose estimation of her own talent is optimistic at best.

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Way Out West: Outlying Islands at the King’s Head

Sunday 20th January 2018, matinée

Having seen two plays by David Grieg, the chilling Letter of Last Resort put on as part of an excellent season of plays about nuclear weapons, and The Kid, a disturbing exploration of drone warfare, we were keen to see more.  A revival of ‘Outlying Islands’ at the King’s Head, brought to us by the producers of the fantastic East at the same venue, promised some intriguing subject matter.

The story is a simple one – two young men, fresh out of University, are chosen by the ‘ministry’ to spend what might be their last Summer of freedom on a remote Scottish Island studying rare seabirds.  It is 1939 and what seems at first to be a dream posting takes a very dark turn indeed.  The play explores the culture clash between the escapism of the young men, who want to immerse themselves in what they see as the simplicity and power of raw nature, and the escapism of the locals, in particular the island’s owner, Mr Kirk, who is desperate to find a buyer so that he can sell up and escape to ‘civilisation’.
Enforced isolation brings out the complexities of all their relationships. Grieg’s writing is skilled, rich in subtext and full of dark power.  His characters are complex and well-drawn, relatable but not stereotypical, and the pace is carefully controlled.   We feel the boredom and routine, and a vague sense of doom.  There is a political context too, with the young men soon discovering that they are not on a nature trip at all, but a grim ‘inventory of life’, in preparation for a weapons-testing programme that they only hear about by accident. The personal and political blend perfectly, as the naive young men come to terms with the realities of war while the tough old landowner calculates the compensation he will receive with every sheep and bird that goes ‘out of commission’.

The four-strong cast do a fantastic job of carrying us away to this distant and evocative land. Tom Machell as Robert and Jack McMillan as Johnny have a convincing sense of cameraderie, bringing a youthful intensity to their relationship which sometimes feels like that of an old married couple.  The arguments which we sense have taken place too many times to mention, and the multilayered bond of shared passions, ambition, and unrequited love.  Johnny is febrile and neurotic, an unlikely adventurer, and Robert, dashing and edgy, fulfills the role of the reckless lone wolf only at great personal cost.  Together they are by turns over-earnest and hilarious.

Ken Drury as Mr Kirk exudes toughness, common sense and humour in equal measures, with a terrifying turn in religious zeal, targeted mainly at his niece.  Rose Wardlaw is Ellen, Mr Kirk’s niece, who has been ‘contaminated’ by exposure to ‘the movies’ and is full to bursting with earthly desires, whether for humour, stories or sex.  Wardlaw creates a complex character who, though often silent, always has an inner life.  Watching and waiting, she is the catalyst and life-force who changes everything.  Her impatience is infectious and compelling.

We couldn’t finish without mentioning the set, another triumph for this venue, which always seems to manage to create an immersive atmosphere in a very small space which enhances the production.  Here we have a minimal but convincing evocation of the semi-underground ‘hut’, and the added bonus of an almost indescribable ‘smell’ which certainly lives up to the numerous exclamations by the characters of ‘it stinks in here’!  Definitely a multi-sensory experience……..

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Three of the Best: The Cane at the Royal Court

Saturday 12th January 2019, matinée

It’s been a long time since we went to the Royal Court, nearly 8 years, but we were lured back there by the prospect of seeing Nicola Walker in a play with an intriguing subject – the cane.

The play is set in the home of a deputy headteacher who is about to retire, but whose preparations for his retirement ‘do’ are increasingly overshadowed by a growing mob of pupils who are gathering outside his house, throwing a brick through the window.  Is it because they have found out that years ago he was the teacher responsible for caning children?  Add to that an unfavourable inspection from Ofsted which must be challenged, and this is far from a peaceful Sunday afternoon.

At 100 minutes, the play whizzes by, with writing that is both witty and slick.  The interplay between the deputy headteacher (Alun Armstrong) and his estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) is a pleasure to watch.  She has followed him into the field of education, but in his mind has joined the ‘enemy’, the Academy movement, of which she is an almost fanatical advocate, and he can’t work out if she has come back to help him regain control of ‘his’ school or to gloat as it is swallowed up in the ignominy of being a failing school.  Maggie Steed meanwhile takes maternal cruelty to new lengths until we discover that she may have been more or a victim than a bully.

Our main issue with the play is that we couldn’t decide whether it was an ‘issue play’ or a family drama, an indication that something hasn’t quite gelled, as it should be possible to do both seamlessly.  There were also certain distractions which made it hard to engage with the drama.  The set is a deliberately semi-naturalistic affair with minimal furniture and half-finished stairs, making the house look a little like a bomb site. Yet there is no real reason for it and there is something intensely irritating about watching three people hover around one dining chair and a low coffee table.  Yes, this is a dysfunctional family, but there is no reason to believe they don’t have normal furniture.  If you are going to go minimal, just do it, but a halfway house tends to reinforce the impression that the play itself is half-baked.  There is also a very elaborate attic which appears halfway through, but despite many descriptions of it being chock-full of stuff, it appears empty.

The writing too seems slightly unrealistic and lacking in nuance.  Some of the events are hard to believe, for example the deputy headteacher’s wife, herself a former teacher, allowing pupils from the school to run riot in the attic; the idea that a mob of children would be allowed to assemble for days in suburbia without the police being called is also somewhat far-fetched.  There is plenty of interesting and entertaining exposition, but the voice of the mother is strangely absent, and the debate, which seems to settle on a teaching ‘dinosaur’ and caner of children against a devotee of the academisation of schools couldn’t be more polarised.  It almost feels like a pair of straw people tearing shreds out of each other, which perhaps reflects what goes on in dysfunctional families, but if the intention was to provide some insight into the modern education system, that aim was not fulfilled.

The Cane remains an entertaining watch, full of satisfying dialogue, some surprising moments, and overall a piece of drama raised up by an excellent cast.

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Highly Strung: A Pupil at The Park Theatre

Saturday 24th November 2018, matinée

To be fair, the publicity for this play does not offer a barrel of laughs. We are told that the story starts with a ‘disgraced former violinist’, Ye, preparing to take her life when she is interrupted by the prospect of a new pupil.  We’d like to say that hilarity ensues, but it seems that this glimpse of hope is just the precursor to further despair.

We do not learn much about Ye, but her pupil, Simona, is a self-taught violinist, an apparent prodigy who cannot read music, but has learnt by imitating musicians on youtube.  More importantly she happens to be the daughter of a Russian multi-millionaire – he wants her to get into a top music conservatoire, she only wants to be taught by Ye. With her landlady threatening to evict and no other means of support, Ye reluctantly takes on the challenge.

We do sometimes think it would be nice to see a portrayal of a music teacher who wasn’t a complete sadist.  Not here, unfortunately.  Lucy Sheen does a fantastic job of portraying the teacher from hell who rules with a rod of iron but expects 100% commitment, heart and soul.  She is more than a match for the spoilt rich kid, who annoyingly turns out to be genuinely talented.

Overall the play is dramatically well constructed and engaging.  The ever-shifting power relationships are well portrayed and this is an interesting theme – how do we measure talent?  What does it mean to teach and to learn? Unfortunately this is not fully explored in the play.  Although the characters are intriguing and in the case of Melanie Marshall’s landlady, entertaining, they are mostly underwritten, particularly Ye, and without wanting to second-guess the ending, there is ultimately no real pay-off.

Flora Spencer-Longhurst delivers a virtuoso performance, with a musical delivery which is enough to convince these lay audience members that she might be a child prodigy, but just as impressive is her acting performance, portraying the mercurial intensity of the adolescent who doesn’t yet know what to do with her gift.

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Writing wrongs: Honour at the Park Theatre

Saturday 27th October 2018, matinée (preview)

We are always on the lookout for a new play at the Park Theatre, and when we spotted Henry Goodman as one of the cast members of ‘Honour’ we knew we would be in for an entertaining afternoon, especially when we noted that he would be joined by Imogen Stubbs and Katie Brayben, whose star has deservedly risen since we last saw her in Company at the Southwark Playhouse back in 2011.

‘Honour’ is one of those plays whose plot won’t tell you if it’s any good – it’s the story of the breakup of a marriage, a husband going off with a younger woman, and the resulting fallout. It has been compared to Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’, but significantly here the author is a woman, Joanna Murray-Smith. The plot could almost have been chosen for maximum banality, but the story, staged here without any set and barely any props, remains riveting, thanks to a sophisticated exploration of the characters and relationships. The writing is incisive and compelling, and completely unpretentious, and being a revival of a production originally staged in 1995, it has aged very well.

There are just four characters, a husband and wife, a daughter, and the ‘other woman’. The key to the play’s success is that none of them are particularly charismatic or heroic. All have been successful in their own ways, and all have the best of intentions, even as they watch their worlds fall apart. More importantly they are intelligent and articulate, though not particularly self-aware, a powerful combination. Murray-Smith is not really interested in wallowing in emotion or high drama or plot twists, but she weaves a subtle and thoughtful thread of dialogue through situations we might think we already know about, and it is very refreshing and ultimately uplifting.

Henry Goodman gives a well-rounded performance as George, a successful writer who mixes complacency and mild dissatisfaction in equal measure. He starts off the play delivering a hilarious monologue, which seems as first to be some kind of eulogy of a colleague and then turns out to be his attempt to summarise his life for the eager young writer who has come to do a profile on him. He perfectly captures the pompous, vain author anxious not to appear too arrogant, and takes us on a touching journey through his naive attempts to intellectualise his decision to leave his wife, before watching his dreams of a new carefree life crumble as quickly as they had blossomed.

Imogen Stubbs, in the title role, also gives a refreshing take on the ‘wronged wife’. More than a match intellectually for her husband, she finds that he has done her a favour by nurturing a revival of her writing career, giving her both time, space and some new material. In a strong but reserved performance she gives little away, just giving us glimpses of an inner steel which helps her to rise above the stereotype of the woman scorned. Never was there a better embodiment of the motto ‘the best revenge is to live well’.

Katie Brayben gives a quietly terrifying portrait of young ambition as Claudia, the young writer who comes briefly into George’s life and quickly turns it upside down. In a highly skilful performance, she never appears to be manipulative or scheming – she is open and honest about her motives right from the start and manages to cause chaos nonetheless. Determined to love without loss, she realises too late that being loved but unable to love is the ultimate curse. She brings a plausibility and brilliance to the role that makes us think again about love, loyalty and morality.

Natalie Simpson brings refreshing energy which cuts through the abstraction just when we need it – with the judgemental clarity of youth her outbursts are satisfyingly visceral, while her central speech about feeling inarticulate in a family of intellectuals is beautifully and falteringly delivered.

Paul Robinson’s direction is clear and tight and he confidently manages the ‘in-the-round’ format, moving the actors around seamlessly so that everyone gets their fair share of the action. In a set that could feel alienating and cold, he builds a space where emotions run deep and lives are authentically complicated.

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