Review: The Best Man, Playhouse

The Best Man, Playhouse Theatre, London

Martin Shaw returns to the West End in US political thriller The Best Man, its relevance to today’s White House painfully clear

“The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion”

With American politics being the shitshow that it currently is, the temptation to lampoon Trump at every and any opportunity is one that many theatre directors have been unable to resist. A wilier creative mind might regard this as too on the nose (and already overdone) and find an alternative way to critique our transatlantic cousins, at least an avalanche of Brexit plays puts the boot on the other foot.

And that is what Simon Evans’ revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man has done. After touring the UK last year, it arrives at the Playhouse Theatre with a slight sense of stateliness about it but also alive to how just how much of what was written nearly 60 years ago has to say about today’s political establishment. With a cast that includes Martin Sheen and Maureen Lipman, plus a cracking performance from Philip Cumbus, there’s something interesting here that rises above some slightly dated writing and aspects of a political system long left behind. Continue reading “Review: The Best Man, Playhouse”

Review: These Shining Lives, Park Theatre

“You’re acting like a guy”

In some ways, These Shining Lives seems like something of an odd choice to open the Park Theatre, a new London theatre in Finsbury Park, as what it seems to do is just add another solid drama to an overcrowded marketplace. That’s not to deny the quality of this piece of theatre but rather a hope that the programming of this venue is able to carve its own niche. Melanie Marnich’s play retreads familiar ground in telling the story of the women working in a 1920s Chicago factory who painted luminous radium paint onto watch dials, licking their brushes as they went, not realising that they are poisoning themselves.

It is certainly acted in a most engaging fashion. Charity Wakefield – not on our stages often enough – is radiant as Kate who becomes the reluctant leader of the cause as it slowly becomes clear what is going on, fragile but capable of bright emotion and fierce determination, well accompanied by the bright Alec Newman as her husband. Nathalie Carrington reveals herself as a luminous performer as the wise-cracking Pearl, Honeysuckle Weeks shines as the seductive Charlotte and Melanie Bond has a certain glow as Frances.

But radioactive puns aside, there’s little of substance to hang the acting on – even with just four key characters, two of the women are poorly characterised and Marnich adds little of dramatic interest to the story as a whole. This is a tale that is appallingly fascinating – management’s lack of concern about the health of its employees versus its profit margin remains as true as it ever was – but the play brings nothing new to it, the dialogue pedestrian, the structure uninspired. Loveday Ingram’s production is solid and simple but one can’t help but wish that the Park had gone for a bolder opening gambit. 

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval) 

Booking until 9th June

Review: Witness for the Prosecution, Richmond Theatre

“You want to know too much…”
It’s 1954 and a handsome young man stands in the dock, accused of the murder of a rich elderly woman whom he befriended. His wife’s testimony could save him but not all is what it seems as she becomes a Witness for the Prosecution. Playing in Richmond for a week as part of a tour which goes to Malvern, Southend and Cambridge next, Agatha Christie’s play looks at the nature of truth in the English legal system and how people are not always what they seem, even to those closest to them, and puts us the audience in the role of the jury, trying to make sense of the conflicting stories and information presented to us in order to prevent either a guilty man escaping justice or an innocent man from the gallows.

Considering that this is a touring show and Richmond Theatre’s auditorium is hardly the most flexible of spaces at first glance, the set is quite frankly amazing. The opening scene, set in chambers, is a gloomy, darkly atmospheric affair with dark panelled wood all around and a bare hint of a glow from a fireplace. But then as we move to the court case, the lights go up and a very impressively mounted, multi-level courtroom is fully revealed and it looks extremely convincing. It has been superbly designed by Simon Scullion and it’s a good job, given that we only leave the courtroom briefly once more in the entire play.

I did find the opening sequence a little flat, somewhat underpowered in the half-light of Sir Wilfred’s offices with a vast amount of information to get through in order to set the scene and necessarily static but fortunately this did not last for too long with the advent of the trial. And what a trial it is: driven by two barnstorming performances from Mark Wynter and Denis Lill as the opposing QCs, teasing the stories and crucial details from an array of supporting characters including the not-quite-as-batty-as-she-seems housekeeper played by Jennifer Wilson. Lill is particularly strong in his pursuit of proving Leonard’s innocence, ably assisted by Robert Duncan’s Mr Mayhew. The courtroom is then topped off with Peter Byrne’s judge who frequently diffuses the tension with some very amusing non sequiturs since he’s completely out-of-touch with the times, but Christie cleverly plays with our expectations and provides him with a razor-sharp legal mind should we begin to underestimate him.

Ben Nealon as the accused Leonard and Honeysuckle Weeks as his mysterious wife Romaine are also both engaging, which is crucial in keeping us engrossed in the twists and turns of the trial, but also in the subtle playing of the hidden depths to both characters. Is all as it really seems? With these two, we’re kept guessing right until the very end, and it is an ending utterly worth the wait, Christie showing consummate skill in deploying some humdingers of game-changing significance but which maintain the integrity of the drama, they may be unexpected but they fit perfectly.

The only small niggle that I had was the presence of the jury onstage. Christie intended the audience to be the jury, we’re the ones making a judgement, and we are constantly addressed by all parties as such so it felt a little incongruous to then have a jury sitting upstage who were basically ignored throughout the show. On the other hand, the use of so many extras gave a real sense of bustle and authenticity to the courtroom scenes that was very pleasing to see.

Well-staged, well acted, well written, I really enjoyed all aspects of this production and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company look like they have another hit on their hands: this is one gripping courtroom drama that you will definitely want to bear witness to.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (although advertised as 2 hours 45 minutes)
Programme cost: £3
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Review: A Daughter’s A Daughter, Trafalgar Studios

“The problem with the young is not just that they think they’re right, but that they know they’re right”

A Daughter’s A Daughter, one of Agatha Christie’s lesser known and rarely performed plays , which was a very late addition to the programme at the Trafalgar Studios, running for just four weeks before The Caretaker takes over. It was written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, who was Christie’s alter ego for more romantic material, and is seen here for the first time in over 50 years in only its second ever large-scale staging.

It eschews the familiar thriller territory of Christie’s regular work for a more intimate drama, a tale of the relationship between a mother and daughter who allow bitterness, jealousy and resentment to challenge the bonds between them. Returning from 3 years in the army at the end of the Second World War, Sarah Prentice discovers a cuckoo in her family nest, her mother Ann is now engaged to a chap who is equally unfond of the new arrival in the life of his betrothed. In a battle of wills, Sarah’s behaviour then forces Ann into making the choice between her daughter and her fiancé: Sarah ‘wins’ but at a massive price, as we follow the pair for the next few years as they futilely search for happiness and comfort in men and booze whilst not letting go of the resentment and selfishness between them. Continue reading “Review: A Daughter’s A Daughter, Trafalgar Studios”