Review: Benighted, Old Red Lion

“Gin is excellent”

It is perhaps appropriate that for Stewart Pringle’s final show at the helm of the Old Red Lion, he’s gone with his beloved horror genre. And following in the success of their Arthur Miller discovery No Villain, this Angel pub theatre is impressively punching above its weight again with a world (stage) premiere of a JB Priestley piece – Benighted. First published as a novel in 1927 and adapted for cinema as The Old Dark House – apparently as the first ever haunted house drama – Duncan Gates’ version offers a stirring alternative to most other festive fare.

You notice the difference as soon as you walk into the theatre – Gregor Donnelly’s angular, expressionistic design giving a sense of the weirdness of the creepy mansion in which a number of people are forced to seek refuge during an apocalyptic stormy night in the Welsh countryside (I’m calling it Storm Myfanwy). And though they get respite from the weather, the atmosphere remains troubled as the eeriness of their surroundings – and their hosts – provokes a great unburdening of the soul as chilling fears run up their spine and secrets come a-tumbling out. Continue reading “Review: Benighted, Old Red Lion”

Review: An Inspector Calls, Playhouse

“You haven’t finished asking questions – have you?”

More than a little debt owed to the Guardian’s Pass Notes as much as any exam paper I ever sat….

Show information
Booking until 4th February
Photo: Mark Douet

Mock GSCE Paper, for Clowns
English
Thursday 10th November
Time allowed – 1 hour 50 minutes (no interval)

Question 1 – Have you seen An Inspector Calls before?
Yes, seven years ago. It was my first time and you can read my review here, along with my embryonic writing style
Question 2 – Hasn’t everyone seen this play by now?
Since opening at the National in 1992, it has had 3 West End runs and 6 major national tours, not to mention a Tony-winning trip to Broadway too. So yes, they probably have. But JB Priestley’s play remains a stalwart on English GCSE syllabus and so there’s always fresh eyes coming anew to the drama. (Fun fact – Diana Payne-Myers (Edna) has been in two of those West End runs and two of the UK tours, plus one in Australia too. I reckon it’s because she knows her lines so well.)
Question 3 – Can you tell the production is nearly 25 years old?
If we’re being completely honest, the iconic house of Ian MacNeil’s set design is beginning to look a little creaky and in these days of jaw-dropping effects from Wild to Harry Potter, its once-climactic moment sputters by comparison. But it’s a mark of Stephen Daldry’s direction that the play itself doesn’t feel at all fusty – its heightened theatricality remains startling with all its inventiveness and meta- moments.
Question 4 – Isn’t Stephen Daldry busy with The Crown?
Series 2 is already in production, but he has got an associate director onboard with him here – Julian Webber – I’m reckoning he’s been busy here.
Question 5 – Is it any good though?
 A play can’t linger around stages for so long without being any cop (ahem Thriller…) but An Inspector Calls really has earned the right to carry the label ‘classic thriller’ and delivers consistently throughout its interval-free running time. Plotting that still twists and turns satisfyingly, music (Stephen Warbeck) sound (Sebastian Frost) and light (Rick Fisher) that enhances the mood perfectly, and a set of performances that crackle with barely-repressed emotion.
Question 6 – Did the butler do it?
 He might have done, though that might be a different play. (I had actually forgotten how this played out, misremembering it halfway through didn’t help either!)
Question 7 i – Please use a gif to demonstrate how freaking fierce Barbara Marten is as Sybil Birling
Question 7 ii – And another
Question 7 iii – And one more
Question 8 – How many people does it take to do the costumes for this play?
More than you’d think. 8 people are named, including the 2 people who do alterations, which is nice as you don’t often see them mentioned in programmes.
Question 9 – What mark did you get for your English Lit GSCE?
An A. Though we were the first year to have A*s, so naturally I was disappointed. (Yes, I was ‘that’ boy at high school).
Question 10 – Can you shoehorn in a late reference to the US election and Donald Trump somehow, for relevance?
Into a (kind of) review about a play that preaches compassion, that highlights the disparity between the younger and older generations, that determinedly stands up for the rights of the poor against the bullish arrogance of the upper classes? I doubt it.
 
See, I told you!

 

 

 

Radio Review: Time and the Conways / Jailbird Lover / The Benefit of Time

“You don’t know what day it is today”

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to any radio drama but the prospect of an all star cast doing JB Priestley’s Time and the Conways was something I couldn’t resist and under David Hunter’s direction, it was a truly beautiful piece of work. The aching lyricism of the play and its innovative (extremely so for the time) non-linear structure have long been a favourite and so to see them get the luxury treatment here, headed up by Harriet Walter as Mrs Conway, is just fantastic.

The play looks at the fortunes of the Conway family as they celebrate the 21st birthday of one of the daughters Kay in 1919 and then flicks forward 19 years where we see straightaway what has become of them. And as their lot mirrors that of the class system in Britain, it isn’t a happy one. Walter’s brittle blitheness as she tries to ignore the financial situation is blissful, Anna Madeley and Rupert Evans are just gorgeous as Alan and Kay – the two decent ones out of the whole bunch – and Colin Guthrie’s piano adds an elegiac beauty. Sublime. Continue reading “Radio Review: Time and the Conways / Jailbird Lover / The Benefit of Time”

Review: Summer Day’s Dream, Finborough

“I spent more than half my life, when I ought to have been enjoying myself, arguing and planning and running around like a maniac”

The Finborough continue their run of unearthing any number of “neglected classics” from some of our most illustrious playwrights with a first revival for JB Priestley’s 1949 play Summer Day’s Dream. Set in a then post-apocalyptic 1975, a nuclear war –World War III? – has devastated Britain and returned it to a simpler way of life. Deep in the South Downs, the Dawlish family epitomise the new England, which strangely looks very much like the old pre-industrial one, but their quiet farming lives are disrupted by three exploitative visitors.


This trio – an American, a Russian and an Indian – represent the new superpowers and initially arrive under benevolent auspices, but as we and the Dawlishes soon come to realise, they are here to strip the land of its valuable minerals. Through them, Priestley explores a surprisingly modern take on global politics and the role of the national versus the international, alongside a more twee paean to the virtues of agrarian life and good olde England, as suggested by the homage of sorts to Shakespeare contained in the title.


Alex Marker’s mannered production makes a solid job of it. The structural formality of the writing precludes much innovation but a stately steadiness provides a measured pace and Philip Lindley’s design makes good use of the limited staging opportunities., Patrick Poletti’s Yankee industrialist, Peter Singh as the Indian scientist and particularly Helen Keeley as the Soviet commissar make strong impressions as the interlopers and if the majority of the Dawlishes are frequently overburdened by Priestley’s speechifying, Kevin Colson as the patriarch Stephen and Eleanor Yates as his considerate niece Rosalie also impress.


Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)

Playtext cost: £3

Booking until 24th September

Review: Laburnum Grove, Finborough

“I ought to be thankful I’ve got a nice honest, sleepy old thing like you”

Continuing their practice of reviving long neglected classics, JB Priestley’s early comedy Laburnum Grove is the latest work to receive the Finborough treatment, in this case a turn in the limited Sunday/Monday slot. But though their hit rate has been quite successful, this slice of melodramatic suburban life was a rare misfire for me with a solid production unable to disguise a rather aimless story or its meandering intent. 

The Radfern family lives a quietly respectable life in the suburb of Laburnum Grove but patriarch George’s patience is sorely tried when the in-laws, staying with them for the duration, make yet another request for money and his daughter’s prospective fiancé likewise proffers an expectant palm, an unexpected revelation shakes up everyone’s certainties. Well I say shake, it’s more like a ruffle, as the pace and mood of this 1930s piece never really picks up from its initial gentle mood. Continue reading “Review: Laburnum Grove, Finborough”

Review: Cornelius, Finborough

“So all the time, while you were pretending to work, you’ve been having the most astonishing adventures in that corner?”

Continuing their well-trodden path of delving into the dusty shelves of neglected British plays, the Finborough have come up trumps yet again with this neatly amusing and unpredictable little curiosity Cornelius. Written in 1935 by J.B. Priestley, especially for his friend Ralph Richardson, it was something of a flop and consequently remains little produced – this will be the first time in over 70 years that the play has been seen in London – but Sam Yates’ production flows with an undeniably persuasive energy to make this a revival worth paying attention to.

Set in the Holborn office of an aluminium import firm that is struggling to avoid bankruptcy, junior partner Jim Cornelius sets about trying to keep the creditors sweet and the office spirits from flagging, in the hope that salvation will come at the last minute from the firm’s senior partner. He suspects it is a vain hope though and as he swings from poignant reflections on lives that have been lived and exuberant positivity in the potential that still remains out there, a delicately touching portrayal of office life emerges which is hard to resist. Continue reading “Review: Cornelius, Finborough”

Review: When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre

“Marriage isn’t perfect”
J.B. Priestley’s farcical comedy When We Are Married arrives at the Garrick Theatre in London for a limited season with a substantially star-studded cast donning their finest Edwardian gear. Set in 1908, three middle-class couples in Cleckleywyke, Yorkshire have their world turned upside-down when, in preparing to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries, the validity of their marriages is called into question and they face certain social ruin but also huge personal issues as the very nature of their relationships is called into question.

There’s no doubt that it is extremely strongly cast with stalwarts of screen and stage forming the ensemble, especially in its six leads. I enjoyed Susie Blake and David Horovitch as the Helliwells with a particularly believable partnership, but the most fun is had by Maureen Lipman as the redoubtable Clara and Sam Kelly’s hen-pecked Herbert who have great fun playing out the role reversal when he is freed from the shackles of her imperious gaze and withering put-downs. Michele Dotrice does well as the long-suffering Annie who revels in her freedom from her dour councillor husband as played by Simon Rouse with some delicious comic timing, but is then slightly compromised by the need for a neat happy ending to the play.

There are constant hints of something more: the beginnings of revolution in the serving classes; the potential for female emancipation; even domestic violence, but none are explored for this is indeed a comedy, a rambunctious farce which is fine for the most part but a little frustrating for me and I personally struggled find the humour in a man slapping his wife. As for the rest of the play, I found there were just too many extraneous characters: the presence of Helliwell’s young niece is completely unnecessary and her relationship with Forbes is not used to counterpoint any of the marriages so I struggled to see why they were there and others like the Reverend and the reporter simply cluttered the stage. And I wasn’t really a fan of the broad comedy essayed by Roy Hudd’s drunken photographer with his end-of-the-pier routine and Rosemary Ashe’s brash, vulgar Lottie, but this is thoroughly old-school stuff.

It is uncomplicated fun and at times quite amusing, but ultimately it does have to be said that this is aimed at the upper age bracket. Whereas it was a entertaining diversion for me, it was rapturously received with rounds of applause coming at the end of every flourish by an actor, even the set got a good clap as the curtain rose at the beginning but to be honest, I was by far the youngest person in the stalls as far as I could see. All in all, if you appreciated 1970s sitcoms, or indeed enjoy watching re-runs of them these days, then this will be the perfect show for you.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 26th February 2011
Note: some smoking of cigars and cigarettes onstage

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: An Inspector Calls, Garrick

“We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”

Despite being a much-lauded and much-travelled production, and a mainstay of many a GCSE English Lit exam, An Inspector Calls has completely passed me by until now, my first engagement with this play. Time and the Conways at the National was my first Priestley play earlier this year, so I was interested to see another of his plays, especially one so well known. Representing the other side of the coin was my companion for the evening, Aunty Jean a former English teacher who knew the play inside out, so we had the makings of an intriguing night at the theatre.

JB Priestley’s period thriller, adapted here by Stephen Daldry, opens in 1912 with the self-satisfied Birling family celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. Oozing wealth and pomposity, Arthur Birling takes the opportunity to share his theories on money and success along with the glories of being on the right side of the social divide. Interrupting this cozy evening strides Inspector Goole, who informs them a young local girl has killed herself just hours before. As he quizzes them about her sacking, pregnancy and suicide, the previously composed family gradually falls apart as various revelations about their involvement with the girl come to the surface and how each of them contributed to her downfall. Continue reading “Review: An Inspector Calls, Garrick”

Review: Time And The Conways, National Theatre

This week saw a visit to the Lyttleton at the National Theatre for the first preview of J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways. Starting off in 1919 at a birthday party, we meet the Conways, a rich family infused with hope for the future: the Great War is over, the sons have returned home safely and potential love matches abound for the numerous sisters. This act is sumptuously mounted, the costumes are fantastic and the company do a great job of introducing a sense of real decadence and loucheness, exuding the confidence that their upper-class lives safely back in place after the wartime turmoil. Francesca Annis as the mother of the family excels here, ruling her roost with a witty demeanour, as does Faye Castelow as the youngest daughter, a bubble of positive energy in primrose yellow. Annis also dealt extremely well with her scarf becoming attached to one of her daughter’s rings for over a minute!

Act II then skips 20 years into the future to see how the passage of time has affected the Conways. With this leap forward, all the actors are called on to really deliver sufficiently nuanced performances to convey the passage of time, and with the aid of some impressive make-up, they pretty much all succeed in this. Lydia Leonard and Hattie Morahan in particular stood out for me, both of them reaching deep to show the frustrations that inter-war life has imposed on them. That said, the acting all-around was of a high quality, although some nerves were in evidence with a couple of fluffed lines (something I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed at the National before).

The final act then returns to where we left off at the end of Act I and we see the culmination of the storylines that started, but with the knowledge of how they will ultimately turn out, 20 years later.

Continue reading “Review: Time And The Conways, National Theatre”

Nominations for 2009 Lucille Lortel Awards

Outstanding Play
Animals Out of Paper; Written by Rajiv Joseph; Produced by Second Stage Theatre
Becky Shaw; Written by Gina Gionfriddo; Produced by Second Stage Theatre  
Ruined; Written by Lynn Nottage; Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and Goodman Theatre 
The Good Negro; Written by Tracey Scott Wilson; Produced by The Public Theater in association with Dallas Theater Center
The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928); Text by William Faulkner, Created by Elevator Repair Service; Produced by New York Theatre Workshop and Elevator Repair Service   

Outstanding Musical
Fela! A New Musical; Book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, Music and Lyrics by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Add’l Music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean, Add’l Lyrics by Jim Lewis; Produced by Ruth and Stephen Hendel and Roy Gabay 
My Vaudeville Man!; Book by Jeff Hochhauser, Music by Bob Johnston, Lyrics by Bob Johnston and Jeff Hochhauser; Produced by The York Theatre Company and Melanie Herman  
Road Show; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman; Produced by The Public Theater  
Saved; Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman, Book and Lyrics by John Dempsey and Rinne Groff; Produced by Playwrights Horizons in association with Elephant Eye Theatrical  
This Beautiful City; Composer and Lyricist Michael Friedman, Librettist Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis, Created by The Civilians; Produced by Vineyard Theatre Continue reading “Nominations for 2009 Lucille Lortel Awards”