On paper or in person the pitch would have been irresistible: the prolific playwright (and writer of screenplays In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) Martin McDonagh has a gothic story involving Hans Christian Andersen, pygamies, Dickens, avenging ghosts and a haunted accordion. Add some nineteenth century empire building critique of King Leopold II’s murderous exploitation of the Belgian Congo for political bite, and you’ve got a hit. No? No!
We open to a darkened house filled with creepy dolls and mannequins and other objects and instruments hanging from, shelved or scatted in a gabled room. Actually as there is no curtain at the Bridge Theatre, as we enter to take our seats, we see the dark set, trying to make it out as we chat and finish our drinks before lights up. Suspended to the right of the set is a large box which is swinging ominously and slowly from side to side. A voice from out of the darkness begins to narrate, and we learn we are in Denmark around the late 1830s in the home of the famous and hugely popular writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen (played by Jim Broadbent). As the swinging box turns, it reveals a glass side, a small round hole, and someone, a woman, writing frantically as if her life depends upon it. And we learn it possibly does. Each sheaf of paper filled with prose, gets posted through a gap at the bottom of the glass and flutters down onto the wooden floor. This is Hans Christian Andersen’s muse. No not muse. His enslaved writer of his fairytales.
This does all sound like a wonderful conceit for a story and a play. This is not a play suitable for children by the way. Not because it would give them nightmares (it might, although I don’t think even they could suspend their disbelief enough to be frightened), nor because of the frankly unnecessary profanity (I don’t mind a good unhealthy amount of swearing), but once you get the point that our fraudulent author is a potty-mouth unsuitable to be in the company of children, the joke is done. No, it’s not suitable for children, nor for adults, because it is a meandering self-indulgent mess.
There are some very funny lines. There are some standout scenes – scratch that – there is one standout scene with Dickens, played by Phil Daniels, and his family in London, which was hilarious. And there are some good performances, including a theatrical debut from Johnette Eula’Mae Ackles as the writer of the tales in the box. I do think Jim Broadbent struggles though to be both comic and sinister at the same time.
But overall the story becomes preposterous and the jokes puerile and lame. I don’t mind flights of fancy, or being lead down dark and twisting paths. In fact I love them. And I have enjoyed works by Martin McDonagh before, not least The Hangman. Ultimately though it is the writing here which is flawed. And no amount of good acting can save the play.
Saturday 13 October (Gallery 1, T59) – note this was during previews
The first two collections of Pinter’s one act plays will be coming to an end next Saturday 20 October, but there are five more to come, taking the season through into mid February 2019.
Overall it is the scale and ingenuity of putting on a whole season of Pinter’s short one act plays which is most exciting and impressive. The cast list reads like something of a who’s who of acting. Some names will undoubtedly create buzz and sell tickets, although given the nature of Pinter’s characters it feels like there are going to be many opportunities to see some meaty performances from the whole cast. So whether you want to see Martin Freeman, Celia Imrie, Danny Dyer or Tamsin Greig, or a chance to see some rarely performed (or in the case of The Pres and an Officer, never performed) works by Pinter, there is probably something for everyone.
That said Pinter can be dark. Very dark. Pinter One opens with a barnstorming speech from a politician standing at a podium, complete with patriotic music and red, white and blue confetti cascading down into the stalls. (Amusingly this play opened during conference season). The speech quickly becomes menacing, and you fall very fast into a succession of plays that create a nightmare totalitarian state of violence, suppression and intimidation. What is ingenious about the structure of Pinter One is that whilst there is a feeling of a narrative arc, they were in fact written at completely different times, from the 1980s into the 2000s. To start this Pinter season with such dark and menacing stories clearly chimes with our age, and is a bold statement of intent for the whole season.
Pinter Two comprises of two plays looking at relationships and infidelity: The Lover and The Collection – themes Pinter returns to in perhaps my favourite play of his, Betrayal. Both the plays here were written in the early 1960s, and yet seem fresh and modern, with sharp observations on how couples do or don’t succeed in living and loving. And whilst Pinter Two is decidedly lighter and a less depressing look at our society than Pinter One, we have now new lenses with which to view these works: #metoo and #timesup make us reflect and question these works afresh.
Perhaps then it is only natural that when we find the laughs, we laugh harder and more raucously. Jon Culshaw plays an idiot president, dressed of course in a blonde wig, orange makeup and red tie, who accidentally nukes London. David Suchet hilariously camps it up in a silk dressing gown and withering looks worthy of Kenneth Williams at a beefy underwear clad Russell Tovey. Pinter gives us comedy – usually black comedy or satire – through an insightful observation of the follies of human nature and how we interact with one another.
Whether all of these shorts will stand up to our current time or not is almost not the point. Like the recent successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has demonstrated, we need writers, artists and directors to constantly be questioning and challenging the world around us, showing us how fragile our freedoms are, or making us see how ridiculous we can be to one another. It isn’t always comfortable for us sitting in the audience in the dark, but I for one will there for as many of them as I can.
Pinter One Tuesday 25th September (Stalls Q15); Pinter Two – Saturday 13th October (Stalls P13)
This short two scene play by Tennessee Williams, was written between 1957 and 1962. This was a few years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and when he was writing other classics such as Suddenly Last Summer. Set in New Orleans in the home of “Candy” Delaney, who attempts to seduce and keep a straight sailor she has picked up in a bar.
With a transvestite as the central character and a gay young couple of tenants living upstairs, it is unsurprising that this wasn’t performed in Tennessee Williams lifetime. That fact that it was only published as a play in 2005 accounts for why it’s not often performed even now. We have though in Candy and her brutish sailor Karl recognisable figures from other Williams’ play, most notably Blanche DuBois and Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire. And themes of desire, loss, and deception that often run through Williams plays like the hot sticky nights of the Deep South.
This production at the King’s Head Theatre was sadly only on for a short run as part of the current Queer Season. The central role of Candy, played beautifully by Luke Mullins, was both tender and powerful. Tennessee Williams has written a great part: the fast talking, street-smart and well-off Candy has lost her husband to “another woman” and thinks she has found love in her handsome sailor Karl (George Fletcher). We not only see a seamless transition as Candy turns herself from a man into a woman, but Candy narrates how her manners and voice become more feminine. Whilst her sailor is in equal measure appalled and aroused, we the audience are captivated. She appears strong, and in control and able to get what she wants, but like all Williams’ women, she is also tragic. It is a fabulous performance.
George Fletcher as Karl has a difficult part in so short a play, even separated in time over the two scenes. We need to be convinced that he is all man, and yet lured back by a man to his home. He then needs to be moved by Candy’s story and then won-over by her, whilst holding back, keeping a revulsion in him that Candy is really a man. All these conflicting emotions are subtly portrayed, so we do believe the consequences when they come. Ryan Kopel deserves a mention too as one of the young gay neighbours, whose angelic voice opens the play with a song that sets the emotional tenor of the play.
The staging of this production was hampered by the layout of the stage and seating (presumably set up for this Queer Season as I’ve seen other configurations), as depending where you were seated you either couldn’t see the faces of the actors, or you were blinded by the lighting. Neither are great for the audience, but you accept the former in a theatre-in-the-round production, but not the latter.
Overall though it is a touching story, with sharp language and terrific central performances that cut through. This is a play, short though it is, that touches on universal themes, and queer hopes and fears too. And for that I was delighted I got to see it performed, and I only hope it gets more outings.
By way of an end of summer report I thought perhaps I’d comment on the productions I’ve seen so far this year that have reached the high water mark of 20. Going forward it isn’t my intention to retrospectively discuss plays and musicals I’ve seen that have now closed, unless they are likely to transfer. Here though I want to give some indication of what I’m prepared to give these marks to, and why.
So before I start praising, I will add just that there is no mathematical formula being applied to my scores. I am not for example dividing up a production into scores for acting, staging, creative interpretations or story.It is instead more of a gut feeling (which I appreciate is subject to many and various pressures). As I leave a show, was I enraptured? On the edge of my seat? Wanting to leap into the aisles and dance? Was I challenged or stimulated (intellectually)? Or did I not feel it? Did I come away feeling like something was missing or off or out of kilter? Was I bored or distracted? Was I inwardly rolling my eyes and tutting?
Now given that writing reviews is not something I’m trained or particularly experienced in doing, other than verbal enthusiastic recommendations to friends, I beg some leniency. I will though try and be as balanced and even handed as I can.I will state the night I saw the show and where I was siting (as I’m of the belief that sitting in the front of the stalls vs back of the upper circle can influence your experience of a show). Although forgive me for this post I wont add these details. And I’m more than happy to have alternative views shared.
One final caveat is simply this: I never read or studied English or plays beyond GCSE, so any understanding or interpretation is coming from my background of enjoying the theatre, and possibly having seen different productions of a play.
So in the order I saw them this year:
Hamilton – So it probably goes without saying that receives top marks. An all round impressive production from music to performances and staging, of which much has been written already. I’ll only add simply that this is one show that lives up to the hype. And if you’re worrying you can’t get a ticket until 2019, then you can always try their ticket lottery: https://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery/
Network – A tour de force that cleverly brought the 1976 film to life. Brian Cranston was incredible in his performance of news anchorman Howard Beale, with an equally talented supporting cast. For me it was staging and live camera feeds projected up onto screens behind that was particularly clever (too often such efforts seem out of place) given the story being told. That, combined with this being a story about truth and how the news (and the public) is manipulated, made it a perfect play.
The Brothers Size – Almost at the other end of the production budget scale came at the Young Vic. A beautiful moving story simply told, in a chalk circle drawn by one of the actors at the start of the play. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (writer of the film Moonlight) this play demonstrated how talented he is.
Summer and Smoke – Another big hitter by Tennessee Williams at The Almeida. Happily and deservedly it is getting a transfer to the Duke of York’s in November, and well worth going. Whilst a fan of Tennessee Williams, I did not know this play. For me this was an incredible and magical production. The simple staging powerfully creating the atmospheric setting, with a wonderful performance from Patsy Ferran as a minister’s daughter.
The Inheritance Part 1 & 2 – Hard on the heels of the revival of Angels in America at the National last year, this was inevitably going to draw comparisons with its themes of gay men and the impact of AIDS on their lives. Whilst I think it had some flaws in the story, that perhaps could benefit from looking at afresh, it was an overwhelmingly powerful and moving theatrical experience that once I started crying there was little to stop me until we reached the end. As a gay man it resonated.
The Encounter – Complicité – Probably the most inventive storytelling seen so far. This one man show (Simon McBurney) using sound / foley tricks to recreate a fascinating true story of a encounter of a remote Amazonian tribe by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969
My Name is Lucy Barton – Laura Linney gave an outstanding performance in the play of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling short novel. The design team – including lighting and sound, should also win praise, in this minimalist staging. Perfection.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Coming out of this production at the Donmar I was just bouncing up and down by how great I thought it was, from the adaptation to the performances to the staging. Sublime!
A 24-Decade History of Pop 1776-1806 – This wonderfully outrageous show by Taylor Mac defies categorisation with its use of a 22-piece orchestra, drag, audience participation (at the Barbican no less), historical storytelling and musical history and deconstruction. I have never seen anything quite like it and cannot wait for the next instalment (1806-1836)!
XENOS – I’m sneaking in this dance piece by Akram Khan at Sadlers Wells (out of order of my timeline) because I do think this man is a choreographic genius, but also as it was also a tour de force of storytelling and staging, shining a light on Indian soldiers fighting for the British during WW1. His last solo show will not be forgotten (and I cannot wait to see what his company does next).
So there we have it 10 of my 20/20 productions taking us up to 6 months into 2018. I am genuinely excited and intrigued to see whether the remainder of the year can reach such zeniths of perfection.
* Photo credits: Matthew Murphy (Hamilton); Jan Versweyveld (Network); Tristram Kenton (Brothers Size); Marc Brenner (Summer and Smoke); Simon Annand (The Inheritance); Jenny Anderson/Getty Images (The Encounter); Manuel Harlan (Lucy Barton & Miss Jean Brodie); Sarah Walker (Taylor Mac)
You need a hook, a backstory. That’s the idea. Mine is a former English teacher called Mr Rowlinson. Back then (in the 1980s) he taught the first two years at secondary school. It was not a traditional classroom, but one set up with benches, four rows, divided in the middle, facing towards a raised platform that was to act as our stage. The division down the middle of the seats split the class into two, and each half of the class for the rest of that year then formed a theatrical team, which was given the name of a guild – ours was the Haberdashers Guild. A play for the term was selected by Mr Rowlinson (or possibly as part of a unseen curriculum), usually Shakespeare, and each guild then alternated each scene within the play. For those within each guild we had to select the actors, others to do the lighting design, or select and queue music (from a selection of old classical 78s), those to arrange the set (we had limited blocks to move about and no chance of painting scenery) and even someone to write up and design a poster for the production.
This then was really my first introduction to both Shakespeare and the complete workings of the theatre (within our limited remit). I’m discounting the primary school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, or even a pre-prep school foray treading the boards for some production – was it Annie? – where the Headmistress insisted everyone, including the boys, learnt ballet. Those earlier exposures were nothing like as intensive or broad as those first two years in the upper school.
So I should probably state that at the time this was an all boys school. As a result, in good Elizabethan theatrical style, the female roles were naturally also played by us boys. And as luck would have it I managed to get the roles of Calpurnia, Julia Caesar’s wife and Lady Macbeth. I also played Heracles as the deus ex machina finale in Philoctetes by Sophocles as the end of year production in front of parents. And once I played one of two crows in some random Scottish ballad, the details I now forget, other than my fellow crow and I both studied crows on the school playing fields to check if they walked or hopped about, and any other elements of realism two teenage boys could bring to a crow on stage.
I never though plucked up the courage to audition for any of the main school plays that pulled talent from across the school. Although as we moved up through the school our English classes always involved some end of term performance in front of parents. I recall we performed an extract of Henry IV Part 1, although I don’t now remember the part I played. More fun in those years was that we got to write our own pieces. Initially we wrote plays about soldiers and officers in the trenches of World War One and then later we got to write and perform comedy sketches.
There was one other English teacher I should probably thank for my love of theatre now, and that was a Mr Porter. I chose not to take A Level English (for reasons I wont explain here otherwise this is just becoming an autobiography of schoolboy memories), but had I done so, or had I auditioned for the main school play, then Mr Porter would have been a far more prominent figure. As it was, and I’m not quite sure how, by the time I entered the Sixth Form I was known to enjoy going to the theatre, and when there were spaces on trips to London to see a performance, I would be able to join. These were often classes for younger years, such as those doing their GCSEs. I remember getting to see productions at both the National (Daniel Day Lewis in Hamlet) and the Young Vic (Corialanus). So I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Porter to allow me to go.
There is one final reason for naming this blog after my first English teacher. And it is this. He marked our homework – for we did also have to write stories and poetry – out of 20. He was a very tough marker. For the first term I was getting 12 or 13 only. And gradually when you got back your exercise books and you got your first 14, then 15 and incredibly 16, it was something you really felt you had earned. I did reach the dizzying heights of a few 17s, and if memory serves me well one 18. But never more. Never higher.
So when some years ago, prompted by another avid theatregoer I started giving a score for the productions I’d seen. This was only ever for my own use, or to cross reference with my friend to see what he thought of a play. Quickly though I found the usual five-star rating wholly inadequate for my needs. And after a brief period rating out of 10, I recalled Mr Rowlinson’s homework marking out of 20 and decided this would give me sufficient breadth and range to allow me to mark what I have seen. Then, as I’m often to be found at the theatre, friends would ask for recommendations. Whilst I’d tweet or mention on Facebook what I’d seen I knew that ideally I would need a bit more space to expand on my thoughts about something I’d seen. And as a good number of friends asked, I thought perhaps a blog might be the best platform. And so Rowlinson’s Report is now born.
Perhaps one final comment should be given to the fact that I deem the scores to be a little bit fluid. I tend to come out of a production with an idea, but sometimes a few days later, or longer, I’ll think no this was better or worse than I marked it. Often there’s a little bit of horse-trading with myself and other productions I’ve seen in the year. Was it better than X that I scored 16? Perhaps not. So I’ll adjust accordingly. It’s never a wild variation, and by the end of the year, everything is locked and I don’t go back and change them.