Review: A Secret Life, Theatre503 at Wandsworth Arts Fringe

“Do you know what goes on in my head? Do I know what goes on in yours? Maybe it’s not what either of us expect…”

What an unexpectedly, tenderly beautiful thing this turned out to be. Too often, words like ‘immersive’ and ‘innovative’ are thrown out too easily by theatre marketing teams so my intrigued hopes were adjusted accordingly by the potential of this piece of ‘digital promenade’ theatre as part of the Wandsworth Arts Fringe. But what playwright Tamara Micner and Baseless Fabric Theatre have done here shines with a subtle but sparkling freshness as it actually delivers what it promised.

A Secret Life arose from a series of interviews with people aged 65+ in the Merton and Wandsworth area about their recollections of being a teenager. These memories and experiences were edited and reshaped into a single narrative of a couple called Audrey and Fred, and then played through headphones on apps (created by NetStronghold) on our smartphones as groups of around 15 people follow Audrey on a walk through Battersea Park and its environs. Continue reading “Review: A Secret Life, Theatre503 at Wandsworth Arts Fringe”

Review: French Without Tears, Orange Tree

“If I’m left alone with her for a minute, I shudder to think what might happen”

You wait years for a production of a rarely produced Rattigan comedy and sure enough, two come along at once. Kenneth Branagh has revived Harlequinade in the West End as part of his takeover of the Garrick but nipping in first was Paul Miller, putting on French Without Tears at Richmond’s Orange Tree. As with Harlequinade, one can see why these plays haven’t been produced more often and certainly more recently, they’re definitely old-fashioned in many ways but with the care they receive here, enlightening too.

French Without Tears was actually Rattigan’s first major hit, set at a private language school where five bright young things are crash-learning French in order to meet the requirements for entering the diplomatic service. But the only thing on their mind is matters of the heart as the boys find their head completely and utterly turned by femme-fatale-in-the-making Diana and this putative tussle between the sexes is literally about it as the boys find solace in each other’s company as they struggle to control their urges in the face of flirtatious women. Continue reading “Review: French Without Tears, Orange Tree”

Review: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, Orange Tree

“It’s rotten when you’re tied to a life you don’t like”

Whilst the news that the loss of its Art Council funding is a terrible blow (especially as Paul Miller’s reign as Artistic Director has barely begun), it was a little surprising for me to hear how vociferous the response was – apparently this venue is much more well-loved and well-regarded than anyone knew. Its mix of revivals of dusty half-forgotten plays and examples of the safer end of new writing has never really connected with me and so despite the best efforts of some to persuade me otherwise, it’s never become a must-see theatre for me.

And at first sight, it doesn’t appear that much has changed with Miller’s opening salvo of a DH Lawrence play that is rarely performed but looking further into his debut season, there’s much more excitement to be had – writers like Alice Birch and Alistair McDowell and directors David Mercatali and Paulette Randall suggest a realignment of the theatre to a more pleasingly contemporary aesthetic (though not exclusively, there’s still some Bernard Shaw in there) that could well see me turning into a regular. Continue reading “Review: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, Orange Tree”

Review: Pride and Prejudice, Open Air Theatre

“I suppose his…fortune had some bearing”

The choice to adapt Jane Austen’s endlessly popular novel Pride and Prejudice for the stage, as Simon Reade as done for this version at Regents Park’s Open Air Theatre, may well be one universally acknowledged as a good business decision. And whilst it may naturally lose some of the linguistic acuity that characterises the best of Austen’s work and provide a stately and solid, rather than superlative, piece of theatre, Deborah Bruce’s production has an undeniable elegance and a rather irresistible charm that many may find hard to resist.

There are few surprises in Reade’s adaptation apart from the skill with which he has compressed and filleted the story, so that it keeps an entirely recognisable shape, populated by all the well-loved characters doing what they do best, over the 2 and three quarter hour running time. Daughters of a country gentleman who hasn’t quite kept up his responsibilities to them and a mother all-too-keen to sort them our, the five Bennett sisters find themselves in need of securing their position in society in the only way they can, through marriage.  Continue reading “Review: Pride and Prejudice, Open Air Theatre”

Review: The Second Mrs Tanqueray, Rose Kingston

“All jealous women are mad”

Stephen Unwin’s run of home-grown productions for the Rose Kingston, where he is also Artistic Director, continues with this revival of Arthur W Pinero’s Victorian melodrama, The Second Mrs Tanqueray. Respectable member of society and widower Aubrey Tanqueray scandalises his friends when he suddenly announces he is to be married again. The issue is that his intended, Mrs Paula Jarman, is a woman with a past – a sexual one at that – but his determination to go through with the marriage leaves Paula feeling increasingly alienated from her new world and particularly from her new stepdaughter. And try as they might to overcome their differences, secrets from the past threaten to overwhelm everyone. 

Though meant to be something of a mismatched couple, James Wilby and Laura Michelle Kelly struggle to convince that there could have been anything between Aubrey and Paula, both performances missing some psychological depth to point us to the truth of their characters. Wilby does mannered Victoriana extremely well but seldom gives a sense of real man behind the bluff exterior, and Kelly’s whole air a little too girlish, rarely feeling born of the frustrations of a life already lived though the second half does see her start to darken the tone effectively.  Continue reading “Review: The Second Mrs Tanqueray, Rose Kingston”

Review: Vieux Carré, King’s Head

“What a remarkable tableau vivant”

Though some of Tennessee Williams’ works are considered amongst the finest plays ever written, his legacy as a truly great playwright is something that has developed posthumously. He continued to produce considerable amounts of writing until the day that he died in 1983 but its critical reception was increasingly poor and so much of the latter part of his body of work has remained neglected. His 1977 play Vieux Carré hasn’t been seen in London since 1978 (although part of it formed part of another Williams play I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark On Sundays which played at the Cock Tavern as part of a double bill of unperformed works) but now receives a rare revival at the King’s Head Theatre in north London.

Often, the delving into the little-performed parts of established playwrights’ back catalogues reveals a good reason as to why they have largely on the shelves, but Robert Chevara’s production shimmers with Southern heat and captivating character work to make this a rediscovery worth taking considerable note of. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set design wisely strips things back to distressed brick walls, maximising the space available into which three beds, a dinner table and a throw-covered grand piano are squeezed to evoke the rooming house of Mrs Wire, on 722 Toulouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans. We start with the figure of The Writer recalling the time he spent there and switch back in time to see him as a callow young man, newly arrived from St Louis and nervously struggling with his unfamiliar surroundings. Continue reading “Review: Vieux Carré, King’s Head”

Review: London Assurance, National Theatre

“I didn’t imagine I’d ever find the countryside so amusing”

Dion Boucicault’s 1844 play, London Assurance, the latest National Theatre production is a rip-roaring, farcical romp of a show that should leave even the most depressed Phantom of the Opera fan with a smile on their face. With a quality all-star ensemble: Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers, Michelle Terry, Paul Ready, all hamming it up for all they are worth, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Sir Harcourt Courtly, a London socialite travels up to Gloucestershire, determined to procure himself a much younger wife-to-be, heiress Grace Harkaway, yet once there his head is turned by her cousin, Lady Gay Spanker, a forthright horse-riding fox-hunting Amazon of a woman. To further complicate matters, Sir Harcourt’s son Charles is also there, in disguise hiding from his creditors, and has fallen for Grace. Sensing the opportunity for merriment, Charles’ friend Richard Dazzle then colludes with Lady Gay to toy with the bumptious Sir Harcourt and lead him astray. Continue reading “Review: London Assurance, National Theatre”