Medea: The Almeida Theatre

Medea is the third and final play in The Almeida’s acclaimed Greeks series and, although both other plays in the series were also excellent, it is probably the most memorable.

As the production opens, lights come up on what resembles a chic minimalist modern home, the type common in The Almeida’s Islington neighbourhood. An upper mezzanine floor divides the stage horizontally.

Standing at a collapsing kitchen sink and counter cruelly cleaved in two, Amanda Boxer’s nagging Nurse, proper almost to the point of stereotype, talks harshly, her voice grating as she bemoans Medea’s current situation. Andy de la Tour’s Tutor chimes in occasionally with his crudely male perspective while Kate Fleetwood’s Medea stands centre stage between.

This literally and figuratively sets the scene for the next 90 minutes because at it’s heart this is a play about duality: male and female; mother and father; woman and wife; love and hate; forgiveness and vengeance. The cut collapsing kitchen the perfect metaphor for Medea’s broken home.

Director Rupert Goold’s brilliant modern dress production makes full use of Ian MacNeil’s clever stark set where everything appears too perfect. Only both Neil Austin’s evocative lighting and Adam Cork’s sombre sound indicate scene shifts. All combine to leave the audience feeling something is very wrong almost immediately.

Although the entire cast is superb, Fleetwood’s Medea is a revelation. Torn in two by her love for her sons and the knowledge of how her behaviour hurts them, you can see Medea’s internal struggle.

Obsessed by husband Jason, a swaggering selfish Justin Salinger, and his love for another younger woman, she wrongly believes she can still win him back. Medea is a powerful intelligent woman. Using every resource available: reason, anger, threats, deceit, sex and even the children themselves, she cannot accept the only person she really controls is herself.

Jason and Medea fight dirty and as their slanging matches become more personal, she becomes increasingly desperate. Blind with rage she refuses to heed Michele Austin’s Cleaner’s harrowing stories as the warnings they are, seeing them instead as ideas for new weapons to use against her husband.

Her fury builds as Creon, Jason’s lover’s father and the Chorus of women she is ostracised from criticise her behaviour. Goading her on to the unthinkable, she spits venom at the audience before the play moves towards its inevitable heart-breaking climax.

This is an exhausting but unmissable night of brilliant theatre.

Orson’s Shadow: Southwark Playhouse

The Orson’s Shadow programme Introduction by playwright Austin Pendleton explains little is known about his play’s true story.

This is the potentially fascinating meeting between two titans of stage and screen, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, to discuss Welles directing Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at London’s Royal Court.

Set during a tremendously turbulent time in Olivier’s personal life and, with Vivien Leigh and Joan Playwright central characters it should be theatrical heaven. Unfortunately it isn’t, at least not in Southwark Playhouse’s production. I doubt this play would work anywhere.

John Hodgkinson physically fits Welles but there any resemblance ends. Although assistant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) was far better, well-played and amusingly gormless, this is taken too far under Alice Hamilton’s clumsy direction.

The dialogue’s filled with obscure film references, which from most of the audiences’ reaction, or lack of any, miss their mark. Jokes about Welles’ weight were more obvious but equally unfunny. Theatrical superstition equates Macbeth with bad-luck so perhaps this play shouldn’t mention it so early on.

After a half-hour, I was still unsure where this was going. Welles wallows in self-pity taking fading fame out on poor Sean, by now a one-joke wonder.

The scene with Olivier was better; Adrian Lukas captures his clipped consonants. Louise Ford gives a strong performance as Plowright and it was interesting to see their relationship before they marry but by their reactions the audience were still confused. One potentially poignant scene discussing Olivier’s son is squandered as an excuse for another unfunny attempt to amuse.

The action finally begins when Edward Bennet as arch critic Kenneth Tynan arrives. Both Olivier and Welles share grudges against him, albeit for separate slights. This also causes a further rift in Joan and Larry’s complicated relationship.

Any progress though is destroyed with the entrance of Gina Bellman’s appalling Vivien Leigh whose attempt at ice-cool glamour is at best a little girl playing dress-up. At her most paranoid and coping with the horrors of Leigh’s manic-depression the scene between Olivier and Leigh should bring brilliance but lacked any of the vulnerability required by Bellman. Confused, convoluted, much of the blame rests with the awkward direction, though awful lighting and milking every joke for all it’s worth doesn’t help.

The second act’s tighter but Hodgkinson’s accent, which was barely mid-Atlantic has been completely lost at sea.

When the long-awaited confrontation between Welles and Olivier finally comes everyone’s too confused and/or bored to care. Like poor put-upon Sean by now the audience has endured plenty of punishment. Although we’ll probably never know, would Olivier really put up with the abuse he gets from Welles? The scene between the two goes on forever.

More Marilyn Monroe than Vivien Leigh, Bellman steals every starlet stereotype imaginable: big dark glasses, full-length fur, stilettos – you could forgive the two-dimensional costume if her acting wasn’t so one-dimensional. The scene between her and Welles is embarrassing.

An interesting story, this could have been brilliant but sadly like the play it purports to portray, too many obstacles stop it ever coming together. The principal’s are caricatures and too much detail’s forced in.

The sub-plot about Tynan’s health, although a big part of the critic’s own story adds little to the play and seems tacked on. Yes the breath is probably an actor’s most important instrument but I doubt many in the audience care. I certainly didn’t.

Welles bellows: “We need to reach a decision about who’s directing it, that’s the problem!” I know how he feels.

Death of A Salesman: Noel Coward Theatre

Sam Marks, Harriet Walter, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (Image: Creative Commons)

Sam Marks, Harriet Walter, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (Image: Creative Commons)

Even before Antony Sher first shuffles onstage as Willy Loman Brooklyn never looked bleaker. The fatigue found throughout Miller’s melancholy masterpiece seems to spill off the stage in Gregory Doran’s brilliant production for the RSC.

Sher is superb as Loman. Trapped like a hamster on the wheel of a life which, although he may hate, he’s also hooked. He hopes for another hit of the adrenaline it once offered – a junkie whose fix no longer works.

Returning home from another unsuccessful sales trip to Linda, his ever-patient wife, (played perfectly by Harriet Walter), he wants to immediately escape again. Although, as she accurately observes, Willy’s mind is indeed “overactive”, it’s also worn out.

Demanding she open something in the tiny kitchen, she explains the windows are open.

“Bricks and windows. Windows and Bricks,” is Willy’s reply. Summing up his state of mind, it should be his motto, helped enormously by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ cleverly cramped set, complemented by Tim Mitchell’s evocative lighting.

The world has changed and Willy’s a relic clinging to the familiar, but Biff his eldest son is a disappointment. His hope of leaving a Loman legacy, Biff (Alec Hassell, the all-American athlete) refuses to play the part his father’s cast him in.

Youngest son Happy also lacks purpose: “I don’t know what the hell I’m working for.” Sam Marks captures Hap’s easy charm who, despite grabbing girl after girl, is lonely. Biff isn’t interested in money but, like his father, that’s Hap’s only measure of success – that and women. Even casual conquests lose their thrill though, now an easy way to compensate for his business inferiority.

Willy switches between past and present like others change radio stations. This makes processing the present even harder, reminding him of unfulfilled promises.

In one flashback, warned by Biff’s neighbour and classmate Bernard, a nerdy Brodie Ross, about Biff’s lack of exam preparation, Willy laughs it off announcing to both his boys: “Be liked and you will never want.”

To him, being liked is everything so, seeking an answer for his current state, Willy is drawn increasingly to Biff’s high-school glory-days.

Neighbour Charley’s (Joshua Richards) gruff realism is unfathomable to Willy. His dead brother Ben (Guy Paul) drifts on and offstage like smoke and Willy begs him to stay, seeking his big brother’s approval as reassurance.

Where Willy is obsessed with other’s opinions, Biff couldn’t care less: “I hate this city,” he screams at Linda.

One thing Willy is incapable of is listening. To him image is everything. The flat, falling to pieces around him, is analogous for his state of mind and current situation.

Charley, despite his frivolity understands the need to concentrate on what’s possible.

When the brother’s business plan fails following Biff’s rejection, he and Hap wake from the dream their father ‘s trapped them both in for 15 years.

Only Willy refuses to, until the past pushes into the present. Forced to face his greatest failure the play is brought to its heart-breaking climax.

Games people play

Stephen Mangan in Rules for Living (Photo: Creative Commons)

Stephen Mangan in Rules for Living (Photo: Creative Commons)

Onstage at The National, breaking life’s rules has never been so entertaining

The Rules For Living in Sam Holcroft’s eponymous new play are literal, in director Marianne Elliott’s superb in-the-round production for The National.

Scoreboards reveal each principal character’s name soon after he or she enters, assigning various rules for which they receive points whenever these are completed. Extremely funny to watch, these thinly mask the many insecurities each suffer, that can’t help but appear during what deteriorates into the ultimate dysfunctional family reunion.

Two brothers have returned to the family home for Christmas with their respective partners.

Mild-mannered lawyer Matthew, marvellously underplayed by Miles Jupp, is first to arrive.

Maggie Service plays Matthew’s girlfriend Carrie, an archetypal actress and his polar opposite. Determined to be centre of attention the minute she enters, Service is hysterical in every sense.

Soon joined by Matthew’s sister-in-law Sheena, a measured, controlled Claudie Blakely, who, we already heard, Carrie possibly offended off-stage with one of her numerous unfunny inappropriate jokes.

Sheena is soon shown as an advocate for every alternative health-trend imagined, especially when it comes to daughter Emma, recuperating upstairs from some unnamed ailment.

Her husband, Matthew’s brother Adam, arrives from his mission for cranberry sauce. Adam, an ebullient but sarcastic Stephen Mangan is also a lawyer but contrasts completely with his quieter brother.

Skeletons in the very large family closet earlier hinted at, slowly begin emerging as each character is introduced and the various rules revealed.

The unceremonious announcement of Matthew’s recent promotion, by the ever-tactless Carrie, signals sibling rivalry to surface.

Sheena explains her and Adam’s, still unseen daughter Daisy is undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy and these “rules for living” help her overcome insecurities, undoubtedly caused mainly by her parents.

Adam and Matthew’s mother Edith, the domineering demanding Deborah Findlay, finally enters, seeking the perfect Christmas for their hospitalised Father.

The family get-together turns military operation and existing tensions increase even further. It’s quickly clear where most of the brothers’ problems originate but any dissent is soon silenced with: “Darling, it’s Christmas,” Edith’s answer to everything.

It’s revealed both boys entered law to please their parents with quiet Matthew, surprisingly, once training as an actor and Adam hoping for fame as a professional cricketer.

John Rogan is father Francis, a retired judge, who, we’ve learnt, is nicknamed: “The General”. A womanising family tyrant, he finally arrives from hospital as Act One ends, a shadow of his former self.

The “Christmas from Hell” theme continues after interval with the scoreboard rules for each character becoming increasingly complicated and funny. More skeletons tumble out and relationships start to crumble.

Between: teetotal hypochondriac Sheena, drinking her weight in wine: Edith’s obsessive cleaning and self-medicating; Carrie’s appalling and literal stand-up comedy; Matthew’s over-eating and lying, and Stephen’s self-pity and sarcasm, The Priory wouldn’t know where to start.

Without revealing too much the climax comes over Christmas lunch as any remaining veneer of family decorum evaporates. Young Daisy Waterstone as sick daughter Emma, finally arrives from bed to reveal mentally she’s the most mature member of the lot.

High Society: The Old Vic

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Some complain theatre, especially musical theatre, should not be performed in the round as it spoils the spectacle and so the show. These naysayers should see The Old Vic’s High Society.

Actors appear to blend with ushers, mingling with an unaware audience arriving to cross a stage, empty except for a piano, to take their seats. No lights lower when internationally renowned jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe (or is he Joey Powell?) seats himself, asking the audience for requests.

This could fail spectacularly, instead Powell’s/Stilgoe’s musical dexterity has everyone singing along to Night and Day. He and the cast segue seamlessly into Maria Friedman’s tightly directed show as houselights dim.

The chorus is superb: girls glide, boys bop and in a heartbeat we’re transported to Fifties East Coast America. The intimate production means actors are so close you can smell their cologne and perfume; the show’s slick set changes seamless.

Although you know Dexter (the brilliant Rupert Young) is trouble the minute you see him you forgive his foibles. True, it’s clearly corny but it’s completely captivating. Familiar songs feel fresh and fantastic – you can’t help singing along silently.

This is a musical about deception but the biggest con is on the audience who sit enraptured as both cast and crew charm with their creativity. Staging is sublime – it really is amazing the amount achieved in so small a space. A swimming pool appears on stage courtesy of Peter Mumford’s imaginative lighting.

Kate Fleetwood transfigures the audience, taking them thrillingly through Tracey Lord’s transformation from spoiled society snob to lovely lady.

Barbara Flynn’s performance as Mother Lord is pure Debbie Reynolds with Jeff Sprawle’s surprisingly spry Uncle Willy a wonderful comic foil.

George is played to perma-tanned perfection by Richard Grieve. His smarmy demeanour means you route for love-rival Dexter soon after George first enters.

Hailing from the wrong part of town, reporters Mike (Jamie Parker) and Liz (Annabel Scholey) are all brassy business, in their quest for a tabloid scoop.

Anyone who’s ever been in love and believes in second chances will fall head over heels for this, the perfect curtain call for Kevin Spacey’s stellar run as The Old Vic’s Artistic Director. A magnum of champagne should be raised in his honour.

Bull: Young Vic Theatre

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The empty boxing ring of Soutra Gilmour’s stark stage cleverly evokes conflict even before Mike Bartlett’s Bull begins. With the front few rows removed from The Young Vic’s in the round production, many audience members stand, some hanging off the metal barrier surrounding the arena-like stage.

With Peter Mumford’s harsh overly bright stadium style lighting and thumping motivation music used before the play starts, audience anticipation is heightened for a fight. Only a water cooler in one corner and familiar generic carpet seem oddly out of place, hinting at the play’s office setting.

The tension between Thomas (Sam Troughton) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) is evident the moment both enter the “ring”. The verbal sparring is mutual but it’s quickly clear Thomas is on the ropes. Superior in every way, Isobel toys with Thomas the way a bored cat plays with an injured bird. Thomas valiantly tries to keep up but, rapidly realising his inadequacy, every insult seems to visibly crumple him.

The entrance of Adam James’ swaggeringly sadistic Tony could not come at a worse point for Thomas. Tony immediately joins Isobel in her sadistic game, a game in which one player doesn’t understand the rules and struggles to keep up.

Like nasty schoolchildren tormenting a weaker classmate, the childish cruelty becomes increasingly vindictive and difficult to watch. Audience laughter at occasionally amusing insults hesitates, gets more infrequent. At first almost silly, put downs become increasingly personal. Alliterative sentences are thrown like darts designed to hurt and they do – you feel for Thomas’ struggling, vainly, to survive.

The entire cast is pitch perfect. Matsuura’s Isobel resembles a beautiful deadly animal – you want to look away but remain fascinated by her viciousness unable to avert your gaze.

Troughton’s performance as the tragic Thomas is almost too painful to watch. He plays straight into his colleagues’ hands, becoming increasingly hysterical and paranoid after their boss, Neil Stuke’s cool, collected and equally cruel Carter enters. As it quickly becomes clear Carter is playing too for Thomas, the game is lost. Facing all three in a wall of hostility and complete indifference, his career disintegrates.

Clare Lizzimore’s taut direction is superb. Using the minimal space to devastating effect, the action is relentless and the production’s every phrase painful. Even worse than the verbal venom in Bartlett’s savage play are his Pinter-like pauses. Almost eternal they swallow poor Thomas, further wearing him down.

Despite Thomas’ career crucifixion, this humiliation still isn’t enough for his antagonists. Their poorly pretended pity is even crueller, the final scene delivering a hammer blow.

Although brief, nearly an hour of non-stop spite makes Bartlett’s Bull an emotionally exhausting albeit, timely, comment on today’s target driven, professionally preoccupied world.