Going for Bold: ‘The Busker’s Opera’ sets up its pitch at the Park Theatre

Saturday 30th April 2016

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from ‘The Buskers Opera’ at the Park Theatre. The idea of an updated version of John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ caught the imagination and we were familiar with the name of Dougal Irvine from the ‘Perfect Pitch’ showcases at the Trafalgar studios back in 2009. When we found out David Burt had joined the cast that was the clincher. We booked.

Not content with updating the original, Irvine has asked some interesting questions of it, and about the role of satire itself.  His ‘anti-hero’ is a musician who is very good at satirising the failings of the society all around him, but not very good at taking responsibility in his own life.

No knowledge of the original is needed, as we are treated to a nicely Brechtian rundown of John Gay’s version, then Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny opera’, setting the scene for a twenty-first century reboot set during the 2012 Olympics.  It can’t be called the ‘Beggar’s Opera’ because the beggars have been cleared off the streets in preparation for the games, and so the ‘Busker’s opera’ is born.  The London Olympics is a clever choice – identifiably modern, yet instantly nostalgic.  The Olympics became a magnet both for rampant capitalist greed and angry protest with the occupy movement and their rallying cry ‘We are the 99 percent’.  The morally bankrupt establishment is represented by Mr Peachum, a newspaper mogul, and Mr Lockitt, the Mayor of London (any similarity to a certain living person most definitely intended).

Irvine is a writer to watch.  He is multi-talented, producing lyrics, book and music.  His songs are prolific and cover a whole range of emotion – from the cynical ‘Love Song’, the madcap protest song ‘The tale of the rat’, the catchy ‘Do you want a Baby, Baby’, the sweet ‘Make Believe’ and the rousing ‘Change’.  He certainly has a different way of looking at things – it’s not often you go to a musical and hear a song called ‘The Invisible Hand’, a skillful deconstruction of Adam Smith’s economic theory.  You can sample some of the songs here and Irvine’s propensity for speaking in rhyme here.  What we really liked about this musical was that it genuinely had something to say – rather than try to shoehorn a well-known story into the modern world Irvine wants to ask some serious questions about modern so-called ‘civilisation’. Not everything about the story fits perfectly, but the plot gets us where we want to be, and captures some home truths about the Summer of the Games.

Casting director Charlotte Sutton has done an excellent job finding a group of talented actors, singers and musicians.  George Maguire looks the part of the modern Macheath – with just a hint of Russell Brand about him, his carefully manicured scruffiness is a facade for the privileged posh boy underneath.  He skillfully walks the fine line between charm and fecklessness, and slowly unpeels the layers of an all-too-familar character to reveal both insecurity and a genuinely surprising glimmer of hope.

Natasha Cottriall literally struts her stuff as Lucy Lockitt – think ‘Legally Blond’ but with attitude.  She gives a standout performance of the catchiest song ‘Do you want a baby, Baby?’ and perfectly captures the vacuous shallowness of the poor little rich girl.  Lauren Samuels as Polly brings warmth and sweetness as the feisty protester who is a genuine dreamer, rediscovering her artisitic inner self to escape the reality of being daughter of an obscenely rich newspaper magnate. The only character with no real cynicism, she makes us believe she might be able to reform Macheath as she clings to her version of their whirlwind romance in ‘Love Song’ and dreams of a better world in ‘Make Believe’.

John McCrea has a lot of fun as Filch, the childhood sweetheart of Polly, manipulated by her father into impersonating Macheath.  His transformation from willing office lackey to grungy musical hero is a delight as he grabs his moment in the limelight.  As the two capitalists, David Burt and Simon Kane play up their villainous mischief to the max.  David Burt, always in control and frankly irritated by the idiots around him, brings a sinister edge to proceedings as Mr Peachum, whilst Simon Kane has a nice line in buffoonery, including some excellent ‘Dad dancing’, just occasionally bursting into tantalisingly operatic pomposity.  Lotte Wakeham directs with clarity and pace, expertly co-ordinating the chaos.

As Dougal Irvine himself has pointed out in an interview, this subject provides an instant challenge to the writer – if you write about the poor and succeed, you risk becoming one of the ‘1%’ on the back of other people’s suffering.  What Irvine does bring to the table is an added layer of hope by focusing on the potential of the individual, in the finale ‘Change’. Yes, by Macheath’s own admission it is cheesy, but it does tap into Gandhi’s exhortation to ‘be the change you want to see’.  And you can’t get much more sincere than that.  A bold ending indeed!


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The Painkiller leaves us numb at the Garrick Theatre

Saturday 2nd April 2016, matinée

As we made our way to the Garrick Theatre for our second in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season, we wondered how we would fare with our severely restricted view seats this time.  We had changed things up a little by choosing the opposite side of the theatre in the Grand circle, and as the set of ‘The Painkiller’ consists of two adjoining hotel rooms, occupied by the two central characters, we couldn’t help but play a game of ‘Kenneth or Rob?’.  Since we could only see the right half of the stage, surely we would only be able to enjoy one of the performances?  The good news is that there is enough adjoining door action to allow a pretty good view, and it didn’t take long to realise that this isn’t the sort of tightly plotted farce where missing a bit of business will ruin your experience of the play, even if we did miss a few laughs along the way.

The Painkiller is adapted by Sean Foley from Francis Veber’s original and has an intriguing set up.  Two professionals occupy rooms in a hotel next door to each other – one is a hitman on his final job, to assassinate a famous criminal who is in the courthouse over the road from the hotel, the other, a photographer, is suicidal after being abandoned by his wife.  When the photographer causes a commotion by breaking the plumbing in a botched suicide attempt, the hitman realises the only way he will be left in peace to complete his assignment will be to offer to ‘take care of’ the distressed man himself.  Sean Foley hit the target with his last West End show as Director, The Ladykillers, but on that occasion he was assisted by Graham Linehan.  Would he be able to repeat his success here?

We can see why Kenneth Branagh wanted to include this play in his new season.  He is able to let rip and show off his technical prowess, with that famous vocal dexterity, and a wide-ranging talent for slapstick and silliness, which contrasts nicely with his steely hitman persona.  As he descends from ruthless killer to gibbering wreck courtesy of some overly strong horse tranquilizer, it is a joy to see the inner conflict play out as the willing spirit is repeatedly let down by the ever weaker flesh.

Rob Brydon uses his legendary loquaciousness to excellent effect too.  Self absorbed and passive-aggressive, we can see why his wife left him for another man who turns out to be obnoxious and arrogant in equal measure, and why the hitman is all to happy to assist him with his suicide.  Our only comment would be that while he has a brilliant line in the kind of shallow, brain-numbing, running commentary that drives everyone to distraction, Brydon doesn’t quite convince as a loser.

Ultimately, the show is not only less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts themselves were defective.  The plot is paper-thin, which in itself wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t overburdened with a vast amount of extraneous business.  The situation is so surreal that it is very difficult to give it the weight of familiarity which makes for really visceral comedy.  Somehow we were just in the wrong mental place to enjoy the silliness.  And the comedy is certainly that.  We suspect that even schoolboys might turn their noses up at the endless disrobing, contrived sexual shenanigans and over-choreographed violence.  The issue is not so much that the action is implausible in itself, but that the plot doesn’t really have an internal logic driving it.

Of course there are moments of hilarity, and Mark Hadfield leads the supporting cast with relentless comic energy in his role of the hotel concierge Vincent.  Overall, though, it felt as though a cast (and Director) this talented should have had material that better enabled them to show off their talents.

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Ich Liebe Dich (Nicht!): Cosi Fan Tutte at the King’s Head

Saturday 5th March 2016, matinée

As non-opera buffs, we’ve been amused to read about the way that serious opera commentators have tied themselves up in knots in the past over what seems to be the ‘Cosi’ paradox – how could the musical genius Mozart have lent his talents to such a scurrilous story?  It was resolved by the apparent discovery of the rich and subtle satire of the piece, but if Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ is to be believed, the answer is obvious if unpalatable – Mozart had the sense of humour of an overgrown schoolboy – what can you do?

The plot involves the cynical Don Alfonso, who is trying to convince two soldiers, newly engaged, that all women are faithless.  He proposes to give them a substantial cash sum if he fails to trick their fiancées into being unfaithful.  Mayhem ensues of course as he cooks up a scheme where the soldiers are obliged to disguise themselves and seduce each other’s sweethearts.  Now, what modern scenario might Director Paul Higgins use as a vehicle to update the story, we wonder?  The answer, a perfect solution for the cosy King’s Head Theatre, is reality TV.  The soldiers find themselves on the popular TV show ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, complete with neon heart logo and name badges, with most of the action taking place in a big brother style house complete with diary room.  The creative team have cleverly come up with a modern-day scenario that makes sense of the action – it doesn’t take much tweaking to turn Don Alfonso into a manipulative host who literally stage-manages events, aided and abetted by maid-turned-floor manager Despina, who quietly enjoys torturing those who think they are superior to her.  Faye Bradley’s kitsch lovers’ suite and TV screens add some nice touches and move along the action, but the analogy is not overworked.

Musical Director Elspeth Wilkes presides over a cast of six who are not only impressive singers, but skilled enough actors to extract maximum humour and pathos from the story. The two lads, Laurence Panter as Ferrando, and Jevan Mcauley as Guglielmo, make an excellent ‘Dumb and Dumber’ double act, each fancying himself the better catch. The two sisters Dorabella (Ailsa Mainwaring) and Fiordiligi (Stephanie Edwards) are also a great pair, leading each other astray whilst trying to justify their behaviour.  Edwards is particularly powerful in her sung protestations of moral certitude, whilst Mainwaring has a delightful charm and naive curiosity which makes it no surprise that she is the first to weaken.  As Despina, the floor manager and orchestrator of the ever more far-fetched machinations, Caroline Kennedy is full of knowing humour, but also brings a nice touch of bitterness as she takes vicarious revenge on her female charges.  As Don Alfonso, Steven East perfectly captures the shallow, smooth smugness of a minor TV personality purporting to occupy the moral high ground while he quietly brings everyone else down to his level.  Of course we forgive everything when he starts to sing.  Freddie Merrydown completes the picture as a silent security guard whose carefully choreographed forays on to the stage are designed to inflame trouble as much as soothe it.

We could hardly call this piece deep – it is entertaining though, and a pleasure to hear the music of Mozart so beautifully sung.  The modern setting does bring a satirical edge which is subtly disturbing – on the one hand it allows us to separate the characters from normal life, but on the other, it reminds us what an appetite there is in modern times for watching formerly happy couples destroy each other.  We think Mozart would have loved it.

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Carmen fails to seduce: Operaupclose at the Arts Depot

Saturday 27th February 2016

We’ve been fans of Operaupclose for a while, and we’ve always admired their style, taking classic operas to tiny venues.  In fact, we were a bit nervous that the Pentland Theatre in North Finchley’s Arts Depot, at nearly 400 seats, might be a bit on the large side for this intimate style of performance.  However, you can’t get much more ‘classic’ than the ever-popular Carmen, so this was a must-see for us.

A big factor in the previous successes of Operaupclose productions has been in finding a good concept, as in the casting of Madame Butterfly as a Thai Ladyboy, or the Jane Austen-esque setting for the Barber of Seville.  The dilemma here is, how do you reinvent an opera based on a thinly plotted melodrama full of misogyny and crude racial stereotypes?  In Robin Norton Hale’s version, the answer is to strip away the glamour and superficial trappings of the original.  So, the colour and vivacity of Spain is replaced with (we are told) an urban and dust-filled desert in South America.  The costumes are deliberately downbeat, and there is little sense of class or ethnicity.  The broader milieu of society is not present, and that is not just because the cast is small – the chorus just has no clear identity, and there is no help from the set either.  Knowing how skillfully this company has previously evoked whole cultures from the smallest of objects, this was surprising.

The problem with this approach is that it was difficult to understand the action without clear visual cues, but more importantly, the physical setting seemed like a vacuum draining the emotion out of the music instead of amplifying it. Carmen should be a feast for the senses – all the senses.  This also hampers the characterisation of Carmen herself, whose flirting seems to be a joyless performance.  This is one way of reading the story, but it is alienating.  It doesn’t seem as though the audience is ever meant to be seduced by Carmen.  Meanwhile Don Hose, the soldier whom she seduces and then tires of, is portrayed as a clown rather than just a naive young man, making it very difficult to see why Carmen is drawn to him in the first place, and making her behaviour seem manipulative and overtly cruel by removing the appearance of a romantic connection between them.

Which brings us to the question of whether you can put a modern reading on this piece without destroying its essence.  Robin Norton Hale, who both directs and has written the English libretto, has a clear reading of the story, published on the Operaupclose blog.  For her, a fatalistic approach, and the idea of a ‘crime of passion’ didn’t work.  But for us, the framing of domestic abuse diminishes Carmen.  It is interesting that Don Hose is said to kill her in a fit of jealous rage.  Suggesting that Carmen had all the warning signs and chose to stay or was unable to escape, completely changes the story and makes us wonder, why not just tell a different story and tell it fully?

What strikes us about Carmen is that she has the sexual mores of a stereotypical male – she seduces men and leaves them when she gets bored, and she takes no responsibility for the vagaries of ‘love’ – it’s all in the ‘Habanera’ that introduces her.  In a patriarchal society, that is crime enough, but she also makes the fatal mistake of ‘Hubris’, that key element of Greek tragedy where the hero (mostly but not always male) defies the gods with excessive self-confidence.  She thinks she can control other people, and although of course she doesn’t deserve to die, as the heroine of a tragedy, why should she not suffer the same fate as a tragic hero would?  Surely, to make her death the product of patriarchal power perversely undermines her by turning her into a victim instead of a flawed human being, especially when the scenario is so sketchily drawn and lacking in depth.

Perhaps one of our biggest frustrations was that, as we expect from Operaupclose, the quality of the music was so high. Harry Blake’s condensation of the orchestral score for a quartet of musicians is in itself a tour de force, and Flora McIntosh’s vocal dexterity and versatility as Carmen is striking. Ben Thapa as Don Hose has a rich and emotional vocal quality which belies the action, and as Escamillo the Toreador, James Harrison, dressed down in casual chic, still brings with him that charismatic aura of the bullfighter with a beautifully relaxed and warm vocal rendition of that most famous of songs. He alone seems to rise above this interpretation with a glimpse of romance and excitement.

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Je ne regrette rien: The Patriotic Traitor occupies the Park Theatre

Saturday 20th February 2016, matinée

It’s been open for less than three years, but the Park Theatre is rapidly taking centre stage as a place for controversial and thought-provoking theatre.  So it seems a natural home for the world premier of the latest play from one of the co-authors of ‘Yes Minister’, Jonathan Lynn, ‘The Patriotic Traitor’.  Although set in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems appropriately topical, being a portrayal of the early life of De Gaulle, the man who said ‘Non’ to the UK entering the European common market.

The play is ostensibly about the relationship between two great figures of history – Marshall Phillipe Petain, and General Charles De Gaulle.  They started out as mentor and protegé, in many ways like-minded men who rebelled against the old guard, and ended up on opposite sides when France was invaded by the Nazis, with Petain head of the nazi-collaborating Vichy government and De Gaulle an enemy of France, gathering together a rebel army in exile.  The play begins with De Gaulle back in power, and Petain on trial on charges of treason.

Ultimately, though, this is a fascinating exploration of the bigger picture, of leadership and nationhood, with each man’s actions seen through the perspective of France, and what it means to ‘save’ a Nation from defeat or obliteration.  Petain was a pragmatist, trying to preserve France’s physical borders by willingly seeking an ‘armistice’ with the Germans in return for implementing their orders in France’s name.  He argues that he saved Paris from being destroyed.  De Gaulle, though, is interested in the ‘idea’ of France (yes, the nation as notion), the result of the hopes and beliefs of all its inhabitants.  For him, Petain destroyed France by lending his reputation as a hero of the First World War to an immoral cause. Petain, on the other hand, thought he was sacrificing himself for his country, not the other way round.

As we follow their journey together, and listen to their arguments, Lynn brings out the absurdities that are inherent in war and politics, but this is not satire.  The humour brings warmth and humanity to a story that is deadly serious and the wordplay reflects the deepest of human dilemmas.  The characters too are fully rounded – there are no ‘straw men’ here and no twenty-twenty hindsight. We experience the agony of their decisions and doubts in real time.

Tom Conti as Petain is a very clever casting choice. He has natural charm, and a strangely laid-back quality, at odds with his historical reputation as an enemy of France. Conti achieves the seemingly impossible task of bringing gravitas together with mischievous humour, combining the irascible impatience of an old soldier with the occasional glimpse of a lost soul who cannot quite believe that his grand gesture was not wanted after all. Laurence Fox is captivating in a different way.  His De Gaulle is absolutely focussed on his idealistic goals, and never stops from the moment he steps onto the stage.  It is fascinating to watch him create himself (and he does refer to himself in the third person ‘Not De Gaulle….De Gaulle‘) and to see how his unlikable eccentricities and youthful arrogance begin to form around a vision of leadership with utter conviction.  A small supporting cast (Niall Ashdown, James Chalmers, Ruth Gibson and Tom Mannion) complete the drama, effortlessly portraying a large cast of characters, and under Jonathan Lynn’s assured direction of his own work, we get a production which is always intimate, but skillfully hints at the seismic events surrounding the action.  A giant backdrop of a map of Western Europe (just for those of us not familiar with the Maginot line), also helps in a no-nonsense way and never lets us forget what is at stake.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, this is another triumph for the Park Theatre.  The run is already sold-out and deservedly so, with writing, acting and direction of such high quality. Sadly it seems to be all too rarely that we find ourselves entertained and informed in equal measure, and leaving the theatre with genuinely furrowed brows as we unpick what we have seen and think again about the well-worn territory of the second world war.  To Jonathan Lynn we say ‘Merci’, ‘Encore’ and ‘Plus, s’il vous plait’!

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Five Finger Exercise delivers a knuckle sandwich: Print Room at the Coronet

Saturday 23rd January 2016, matinée

We were intrigued to discover that after several cosy afternoons at the Print Room in its tiny theatre space in Hereford Road, that the founders had decamped to a much more ambitious venue – the former Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate.  Would they lose some of the frisson that came from such an intimate space?  Well, the space they have created out of the old cinema building is instantly appealing.  It takes a while to realise that they have used the ground floor as a trendy bar decorated to within an inch of its life with a range of antique props, leaving the circle as a perfectly proportioned mini-theatre.  The old ‘slimline’ wooden chairs are still there, with the rather disturbing addition of a free fleecy blanket each – fortunately the cold spell that must have prompted this addition had moved on by the time we visited.  The distressed state of the building is in fact the beginnings of a restoration project, so make the most of this unique space – it feels exciting even before the action starts.

We were already buzzing with anticipation at the thought of experiencing an early Peter Shaffer play, his first major success, ‘Five Finger Exercise’.  Set in the weekend country retreat of the Harringtons, a rustic cottage paid for by Stanley Harrington’s furniture business, and decorated by his wife Louise who despises his vulgar trade and fancies herself as his superior when it comes to taste.  The ‘retreat’ becomes the battleground for well-worn family conflict between the self-made man desperate for a game of golf, the glamorous wife who feels stifled by the lack of culture, a neurotic son, Clive, who is starting to drink too much, and an overly cheerful younger daughter, Pamela, who seems to have hard-won wisdom beyond her years.  Into this mix comes Walter, Pamela’s tutor, with his own terrible history growing up in Germany during the war, for whom the Harringtons seem to be the perfect family.  At first.

Disturbingly, Shaffer later described this play as ‘semi-autobiographical’, and there is certainly a sense that he had a lot of material to draw on.  On the surface, the play revels in the details of everyday life and the power play contained in the endless trivial rituals. Underneath there is a carefully constructed drama.  Shaffer has said that “Tragedy, for me, is not a conflict between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right.”  This play certainly has this idea at its centre – there are no heroes or villains here, it is the apparent inability of each character to accept and understand the others that does so much damage.

It is easy to see the writing talent that later won such recognition with ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Equus’ – the writing is dense but not stodgy, and packed full of heartfelt emotion, imaginative flights of fancy, and a surprising amount of humour, given the subject matter. Stanley’s strenuous efforts to get his son to live in what he thinks is the real world are by turns humourous and painful, and the sibling banter gives us flashes of happier times. The sense that all the ingredients of happiness are here is palpable, and the failure of the family to find it is the ultimate tragedy.

The cast of five are all excellent, and very well cast in Jamie Glover’s production.  Lucy Cohu brilliantly portrays the matriarch Louise, her brittle emotions made visible in her physicality, and the paper thin veneer of sophistication barely concealing her apparent mission to kill her entire family with kindness.  Jason Merrells as Stanley is the perfect foil, mostly silent with a good line in passive aggression, until even he can see that action is needed.  The deeply hidden frustration of being surrounded by people he literally cannot understand is always beneath the surface.  As Walter, Lorne MacFadyen provides a calm centre and as the outsider, gives us a more detached perspective.  He portrays the depth of his character with a layered, measured performance which draws us in almost imperceptibly.  Tom Morley as Clive physically embodies a sense of overwhelming emotion, spilling out by turns with vitriol, boyish humour, and poetic vision.  It is not easy being the conduit of all the family ills, and he does it with humour and passion.  Terenia Edwards on the other hand makes a bright and breezy Pamela, whose good humour seems inexhaustible, and who at only 15 seems to have the measure of her family and its internal conflict, albeit at the cost of emotional detachment.

This production is a real treat and a chance to sample the early talent of Peter Shaffer, with an excellent cast and skillful, clear direction. Which makes us wonder if it is time for a revival from the other end of Shaffer’s career – his last (or should we say latest?) and sadly underappreciated play ‘The Gift of the Gorgon’.

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Our revels now are just beginning: The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company brings Harlequinade to the Garrick

Saturday 19th December 2015, matinée

Well, we didn’t plan it this way, but we seem to have got ourselves into an endless loop of backstage comedies, first with Ben Hur at the Tricycle, then with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and finally with Harlequinade, our first taste of the new year-long residence at the Garrick by Kenneth Branagh and his company, named with an admirable lack of nonsense the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company.  The combination of Branagh and the chance of another Terrence Rattigan play was irresistible.  It’s certainly brave to choose a comedy about a touring theatre company which is in danger of falling apart at the seams, given the ambition of Branagh’s own plans for this inaugural season, which will culminate in the man himself playing the lead in ‘The Entertainer’.  But it is this unpretentious chutzpah which makes Branagh such a pleasure to watch.

Before we get down to another afternoon of theatrical Schadenfreude, we are treated to an added bonus in the form of a short Rattigan one-woman play ‘All on her own’, performed by Zoë Wanamaker.  Originally written for TV, the monologue skilfully explores some dark themes – the self-delusion and self-torture of a woman trying to understand the actions of her dead husband, locked in an endless question and answer session with herself, and breaking into impersonations of her husband with a ‘bad Huddersfield accent’.  We are not sure how well it translates to the stage, especially a large theatre, where some of the claustrophobia of the intense inner drama is lost, but this is a rare opportunity for the Rattigan aficionado.

No sooner had the curtain fallen (with just a few moments to jostle for some slightly less worse seats in the Upper Circle), than a film came up detailing the activities of ‘CEMA’, the ‘Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts’, the post war predecessor of the Arts Council, and we are immediately in the world of Arthur Gosport and his wife Edna, veterans of the stage, whose acting company is bringing Shakespeare to the masses, and for whom playing the teenage Romeo and Juliet is just a case of mind over matter. Returning to Brackley, Gosport has a vague sense of Deja Vu, before being confronted with a daughter and grandchild he never thought he had, not to mention the slow realisation that through sheer absent-mindedness he is bigamously married to Edna. Meanwhile the stage manager (a suitably exasperated Tom Bateman) is in the middle of his own tug of love and spends the play trying to tell the couple he must leave the company to get a job ‘in the firm’ with his fiance’s father – between their self-absorption and his ambivalence, this one will run and run.

Kenneth Branagh displays his famous ability to attract a high quality cast in all the roles and it shows.  Zoë Wanamaker is Dame Maud, self-appointed mentor to Arthur and Edna, full of faint praise delivered with a velvet voice (“you’re too old to play Romeo and Juliet” she proclaims as they try to adjust the lighting to make it more flattering).  John Dagleish, fresh from widespread acclaim as Ray Davies in ‘Sunny Afternoon’ making a great straight man as the bemused policeman, and veteran of West End musicals Hadley Fraser making a hilarious appearance as the ‘First Halberdier’, who gets unexpectedly promoted.  He does get to show off his singing skills, although not in the way you might expect.  The whole company are led by a masterful comic duo.  It is a particular pleasure to see Miranda Raison get some material worthy of her talents, following Hello/Goodbye at the Hampstead Theatre.  Here she is more than a match for Branagh, and perfectly captures the subtle but powerfully disarming quality of the eternal actress.  She knows her place in the company, but she expertly plays on the insecurities of her husband whilst simultaneously playing the supportive wife, all with perfect charm and a lightness of touch that is all the more hilarious.  Branagh himself is perfectly cast, bringing the genuine gravitas of the heavyweight actor to the part, before seamlessly moving into the realms of high comedy.  He is completely obsessed, but layered with a veneer of affability which is occasionally punctured with explosive irritability when the real world threatens to rear its ugly head.  Never mind high drama, not many actors can imbue the everyday triviality and superficiality of theatrical life with such intensity.

What strikes us most about this piece is how little it has dated.  The halcyon days of generous government funding for touring companies may have gone along with some of the more ‘dramatic’ acting styles, but the everyday human drama is universal and engaging.  Rattigan’s writing is brilliant, and the acting and creative team have more than done him justice, whether it is in the tight and uncluttered direction of Branagh himself and Rob Ashford, Christopher Oram’s lovingly created set and costumes (some great wig work here), or Bret Yount’s hilariously choreographed fight scenes.

And there’s plenty more to look forward to.  Next up for us will be ‘The Painkiller’, directed by Sean Foley, and for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, we warmly recommend the revival of Red Velvet starting in January.

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