Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Dumb Waiter

21st February 2007

Yet another welcome Pinter revival: this time a one act two-hander, first staged in 1960.

Two men Ben and Gus wait in a windowless basement. A dumb waiter in the wall brings notes that request increasingly exotic meals. They send what they have - a chocolate bar, half a pint of milk and so on. It appears that they are hit men waiting for instructions. They talk about football, previous jobs they’ve done together, a gas cooker in the adjacent kitchen and the toilet cistern. Their conversations are strangely disconnected.

There’s plenty of comedy here. In fact this production of The Dumb Waiter, like several of the current crop of Pinter revivals, seems to be emphasising comedy over menace. This emphasis further suggests a connection with the comedy writers Galton and Simpson. There is a moment in The Dumb Waiter when Gus is imagining what food the invisible people upstairs at the other end of the dumb waiter might be eating. This smacks of Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half-Hour having one of his customary rants about the unfairness of life.

At this point – and with this production, as well as The Caretaker shortly opening at the Tricycle – it might be tempting to speculate about how much Pinter is influenced not by Beckett but by Galton and Simpson. After all, Hancock’s Half-Hour started on radio in 1954.

The set is impressively squalid. There are two stained singles beds either side of the titular Dumb Waiter with doors leading to a hallway on one side and a kitchen on the other. The walls are tiled like an old-fashioned public convenience. The tiles are cracked and displaced; many are missing. There is rubbish under the beds.

The theatre, however, has very steeply raked seating looking down on the performing area. This has the effect of distancing the audience from the stage, giving a feeling of observing the action from afar rather than being closely involved with it.

Lee Evans plays Gus and brings his usual physical style to the part (elements of Norman Wisdom filtered through Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer character). This has the potential to be a barrier to enjoying the character. However, it is understated and, as the action advances, seems to become less apparent. Jason Isaacs does a good turn as Ben – although Evans perhaps upstages him at times.

The tension could possibly have been ratcheted up a bit more at the end of the play. Altogether, though, another fine revival - not to be missed by admirers of Pinter’s work.

Trafalgar Studio 1

Wednesday, 21 February 2007


17th February 2007

The Lyric Hammersmith’s latest production is artistic director David Farr’s re-telling of the story of Rama and Sita – a love story that is both epic and comic.

This version, however, takes a while to get going and at first its tone seems uncertain. It is not clear what it is trying to achieve (education, entertainment or a combination of the two). Some of the dialogue seems ploddingly literal; describing rather than enhancing what is on the stage. The first jokes, when they finally arrive, are greeted with relief, as they indicate which way the production is going.

The style harks back to Kneehigh theatre, the previous occupants of the Lyric stage. Like them this production mixes low comedy with heightened emotion: except in Ramayana the low comedy isn’t always funny enough and the heightened emotion tends to lack the poetry and that heart tugging quality Kneehigh excel at. Further connection with that company is provided by the presence of Eva Magyar who appeared in both their Bacchae and Tristan & Yseult.

The cast is generally good. Richard Simons gives a fine comic performance as Hanuman the monkey god. He also does an excellent deer impersonation and was – coincidentally - a fine seagull in the Lyric’s Christmas show Watership Down. Eva Magyar as Ravana finally comes into her own during the vigorous battle with Paul Sharma’s Rama – one of the high points of the evening.

There is good physical business – Rama’s crossing of the ocean on bamboo poles for instance or Hanuman flying across an ocean and clambering over seats into the audience in search of Sita. The multi-headed monster Ravana is brilliantly depicted by means of 9 casts of Eva Magyar’s head. More invention of this level would have propelled the production to greater heights.

Indeed, its failure to rise far above the ground is echoed in the use of bamboo in the set. A striking forest of it adorns the stage and is used by the cast for positions of advantage above the action. But they – like the production - never rise more than a few feet above the ground. This feels like a wasted opportunity.

Meanwhile a live musician effectively mixes percussion with pre-recorded sounds on a raised platform at the back of the stage.

Ramayana is actually a bold attempt at staging this epic, but is only partially successful. It boasts some strong performances and striking visual tableaux, but it falls short of really bringing the story to satisfying and vibrant life.

Lyric Hammersmith
Until 10th March

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The Seagull

14th February 2007

Ian Rickson is the outgoing artistic director of the Royal Court and The Seagull is his farewell production for the theatre.

While appearing to be about nothing much – as Chekhov himself slyly observes during the course of the action – The Seagull deals with art, creativity, acting, ennui and failure to communicate. Each character is to some extent the victim of thwarted ambition: some rail against this to a greater or lesser extent (Konstantin, Masha), while others struggle on with their disappointing lives (Medvedenko, Masha, Sorin).

The awkwardness of the group of people who know each other both too well and too little is brilliantly conveyed in their clumsy conversations and leaden jokes. Long before the comedy of embarrassment – which is the staple of so much of today’s television and stand-up comedy – Chekhov was employing the technique – perhaps more subtly – in late 19th century Russia. And this perhaps helps explain the hostile reaction The Seagull received at its premiere.

In contrast to Katie Mitchell’s controversially received production at the National towards the end of last year, Rickson’s appears more conventionally straightforward. It still, however, gets to the heart of this work and while we may laugh at the characters from time to time we still understand and empathise with their condition.

The humour and pathos of the piece are clear. Every character is suffering from disappointment or an unwillingness to engage with the real. Chekhov presents us with a sick society that it slowly going nowhere – yet its pathway is littered with casualties.

Kristin Scott Thomas’s Arkadina is a monster, yet she has appeal - we can see why she is a feted stage actress and why the people in her life bend to her will – yet her selfishness and egocentricity will cost her her son. Her dismissal of Nina’s acting abilities is breathtakingly callous – yet a cruelly accurate assessment of the girl’s talent.

The rest of this stellar cast gives a strong ensemble performance. Mackenzie Crook as the weedy and possibly talentless Konstantin performs with tortured neediness. All the actors are worthy of mention but special mention is due to Carey Mulligan as a youthful, enthusiastic Nina destroyed by her contact with artistic pretension and Trigorin’s exploitation of her admiration for him. Katherine Parkinson as Masha – bitter, drunk, disappointed – is an excellent comic presence. Pierce Quigley’s teacher is played to perfection as a good man battered by cruel circumstances and manipulative people.

As important as the main action driving the narrative forward is cast’s responses to what we all see. This is where the essence of Chekhov lies. For example, the look Yakov gives Arkadina after piling the stage with her suitcases for a putative departure; she having done nothing to advance the leaving, claims to be exhausted.

The set is shabby and of natural material, yet possesses a semblance of solidity – and so reflects the characters in the drama. The lighting – naturalistic – candles and oil lamps: soft and shady. It’s worth staying in your seat during the interval just to watch the stage for the second act being constructed.

Altogether, this is an excellent production and a fitting conclusion to Ian Rickson’s tenure at the Royal Court.

The Man of Mode

8th February 2007

This modern dress version of Etheridge’s 1676 Restoration satire is hugely enjoyable and provides a telling critique of early 21st century society. George Etheridge was part of a social elite that was devoted to physical pleasure and personal gain. His play mocks this superficiality and the exploitative natures of those involved.

In this updated production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, the social critique remains strong. The parallels between the early 21st century and Restoration England are clear. Wealth, celebrity and shallowness are celebrated in both cultures. The only relationships humans can have with each other are sexual or financial. Posing is more important that substance.

Dorimant, the central character, and said to be based on the Earl of Rochester, is a sexual predator, in need of financial security. He has a mistress (Mrs Loveit), yet pursues another woman (Belinda) and also the wealthy Harriet who could save him financially. Many other characters also embody the complex culture of marriage as the transfer and safeguarding of wealth among a small elite. They too show that they can be as predatory as Dorimant.

Performances are universally good. Tom Hardy – as the buff Dorimant – is both charming yet odious. Rory Kinnear as Sir Fopling Flutter gives a show-stealing performance as a vain and shallow fashion obsessed fool, trailing his entourage of French dancers around the salons of London. Amit Shah as Young Bellair – an almost moral character – is a performer who is on the cusp of stardom. Indeed, by making the Bellair family Asian Hytner helps update the play and give it added resonance.

The staging and set design is impressive. Their evocation of modern life and exclusive clubs is convincing – and the music and movement covering scene changes advances the narrative and is enjoyable in its own right.

The rest of the cast is versatile, giving believable portrayals of a shallow and self-regarding society. The production manages to both entertain and hold up a mirror to our own world. The ending, with Dorimant having just contracted to marry Harriet, yet already in pursuit of a fresh mistress, shows there is no cosy redemption for these predatory members of the social and financial elite.

Olivier Theatre