Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: July

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

by Martin McDonagh

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a black comedy by Martin McDonagh. In the past I’ve greatly enjoyed his play Pillowman and film In Bruges. Tonight’s play is one of his earlier works. It has a single set and takes place in the Irish mountains.

A forty-year-old single woman is looking after her aged housebound mother. The latter is monstrously demanding and at first our sympathies are with the daughter. As the action progresses we slowly realise the two of them are in a mutually abusive yet dependent relationship.

The daughter’s attempts to find late-flowering love with a visiting neighbour prove to be doomed. There is much black comedy and overturning of expectation. There is even murder and a cruel denouement. Altogether excellent drama, well performed and staged.

Young Vic

Danton’s Death

By Georg Buchner in a version by Howard Brenton

Georg Buchner’s play deals with some events of the French Revolution and the ideological clash between Georges Danton and Robespierre. It is presented in a new version by Howard Brenton which makes for a shorter and – some might argue – more comprehensible evening.

It’s simply staged on two levels – there’s a bare lower area with numerous doors entering on to the performance space. There’s also a balcony above with giant shuttered windows.

The play is discursive, the performance of Toby Stephens as Danton could be seen as irritatingly mannered. The guillotine scene at the play’s climax is effective, though. The debate about how far revolution should go is sort of ok but fails to engage or involve. Overall it was a slightly disappointing production.


Shakespeare The Man From Stratford

By Jonathan Bate

Simon Callow performs a one man show based on Jonathan Bate’s book about Shakespeare. It’s an impressive and crowd-pleasing synthesis of Shakespearean anecdote interspersed with quotations from the plays. The form follows the seven ages of man.

Callow gives a bravura performance: and the show is a combination of entertainment and information. The entertainment is undeniable; the information is academically unexciting but theatrically good. Simply staged this is an effective and enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Richmond Theatre

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: June

Sucker Punch

by Roy Williams.

Set in the late 1980s Sucker Punch concerns two young black men who turn to boxing as a means of coping with a racist society. It is a complex work that shows ideological divisions within the black community and how both white and black entrepreneurs can exploit these divisions. It also provides a multi-generational perspective – albeit almost exclusively from a male viewpoint – which gives it an added resonance.

The Royal Court is reconfigured for this production. The stage is a boxing ring, with seating at the frontand back; mirrors on each of the sidewalls give an impression of added depth and crowd numbers.

Two school friends, Troy and Leon, are working at a gym run by a former boxer. He is also training a young white hope, who he knows will eventually leave him for better economic prospects. The two friends present different aspects of the black experience and also how the black community regards its successful members.

The central performance of Leon carries the whole play and in Daniel Kaluuya‘s portrayal is full of extraordinary vigour and sensitivity.

Royal Court

Welcome To Thebes

By Moira Buffini

Moira Buffini’s play takes its story from Greek mythology. The action revolves round the troubled city-state of Thebes and it deals with the supernatural interventions of the gods in the already complicated lives of humanity.

In Buffini’s re-telling some of the male protagonists (for example Creon) have been replaced by their female counterparts (Eurydice) and autocracy replaced by democracy. However this is all filtered through the troubled history of post-colonial Africa and the real politick of ‘benign’ aid from an Athens (the so-called cradle of ‘democracy’) that is a metaphor for the 21st century USA.

This multi-layered approach allows Buffini to explore areas such as male vs female politics, imperialism, the levels of democracy in different states in different parts of the world and the complex role of global economic interests when it comes to the trial and punishment of the perpetrators of war crimes.

There is a lot of deep and disturbing material here; but also a lightness of touch, political insight and – perhaps surprisingly - big laughs. The large Olivier space with a single set is well used. Scenes overlap in a chamber style but there are also grand set pieces. For once in this space flashy technology is not used to cover up imaginative gaps in a production. The biggest stage effect involves the arrival of a helicopter. This happens only in sound and air disturbance – the aircraft lands off stage and out of sight.

The play is clearly directed by Richard Eyre and the large cast is uniformly excellent. Leads David Harewood as Theseus and Nikki Amuka Bird as Eurydice are outstanding, while Chuk Iwuji.s opportunistic Prince Tydeus also deserves mention.


Review of 2010 - what was missed out: May


By Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s Salome is produced by Rupert Goold’s company Headlong – but not directed by him. Nevertheless it has the usual show pony tricks I associate with his work. Visually it’s a very striking production. The stage is high above the stalls and features trapdoors mud and water.

In essence Salome is all about beheading John the Baptist, the dance of the 7 veils and women destroying (male controlled) religion. It’s set in a time when there are many competing religions and Christianity is just another crazy sect vying for public recognition. However, there’s something about the Christian prophet incarcerated in Herod’s gaol that sets Salome off.

The play is transgressive on many levels: the fact that Herod has married his dead brother’s wife, that he lusts after his step-daughter Salome as well as – in this production and presumably in deference to Wilde’s sexuality – engaging sexually with his (male) entourage – much to their disgust. Royalty is presented as corrupt and venal, childish and vindictive – a suitable comment on those in power in any age perhaps. There’s a strong cast with Con O’Neil’s Herod and Jaye Griffith’s Herodias outstanding. Zawe Ashton excels as an erotically charged spoilt wild child in the role of Salome.

Richmond Theatre

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: April


by Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold, Prebble’s play deals with the infamous collapse of the US energy company Enron at the start of the century. It also explains the curious accounting methods and slack auditing that allowed the firm’s gigantic fraud to take place.

The play’s tone is satiric and there are also musical numbers. The set is high tech but also strangely dark at times. Everything is well drilled and performed and there are entertaining moments.

However, I’m not sure I found it that satisfying. It certainly poked fun but generally lacked the anger that only briefly surfaced towards the end of the play when two ‘ordinary’ people who had lost everything in the fraud confronted one of the main players in the drama. It actually felt at odds with the rest of the play, which was far too jaunty in tone. Indeed Sam West’s final speech as the unrepentant Jeffrey Skilling almost comes across an aspirational endorsement of the free market.

Noel Coward Theatre

The Empire

By D.C. Moore

The Empire is set in Afghanistan in the present day. We look down on a wrecked room in a damaged building. Outside it is very hot. A British soldier, together with a member of the Afghanistan army is guarding a prisoner.

The play deals with the interaction of the three as they try to understand what has just happened, what is happening now and what should be done about it. It is a play about four bearded men and one clean-shaven man. The bearded men are the problem. The backgrounds of each character and his prejudices are skilfully sketched in.

Our opinion of and response to each of the characters changes during the course of the play in the light of what they say or do. For instance, the officer at first seems a clich├ęd fool, but isn’t. The soldier appears decent but is flawed and easily slips into mindless brutality. The prisoner is plausibly sympathetic at first but there is always a nagging doubt about him, which may just be the result of our own prejudice. But in this instance the prisoner eventually reveals himself to be the terrorist the other characters think he is.

The play deals well with the ambiguities of perception and prejudice; how the behaviour of those who are supposed to bring peace and order can slip into disorder and brutality. It also shows how the voice of the ordinary citizen of a disputed country can be overlooked in the heat of conflict. Staged and performed with conviction, the play teases out prejudice and confronts stereotypes in a dramatically satisfying way.

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs


By Alan Bennett

We go to Milton Keynes Theatre – which is a vast hanger of a space. The play is Alan Bennett’s Enjoy. It’s an early work, which tells the story of a strangely dysfunctional family. At times it has echoes of Pinter and, indeed, Joe Orton.

The set is dwarfed by the vast stage and the show lacks a little of intimacy the play actually demands. Despite this the production does manage to be both amusing and entertaining.

Milton Keynes Theatre


By Laura Wade

Laura Wade’s latest play is about an Oxbridge drinking club along the lines of the notorious Bullingdon club, which counts numerous high-ranking Tories among its members. The play is book ended by a Tory ‘godfather’ in a gentleman’s club talking to his godson.

The members of this Riot club meet up for an evening of eating, drinking and – they hope – debauchery at a country pub. They hire a private room for their festivities, and their intention is to destroy it at the end of the evening.

The first half of the play shows us the group’s attitudes, their sense of ritual and history; it sketches in their relationships with each other, their competitiveness and individualism, yet their dependence on peer group approval. So far much like any other group of young people – or in this case young men – in our society. However, Wade compellingly portrays these objectively repellent young men in a rounded way. She conveys their complex mixture of intelligence, stupidity and nauseating sense of entitlement brilliantly – and yet we also see their vulnerabilities. There are numerous moments in the first half where genuine friendship and feeling are destroyed -before they can flourish - by bullying and aggression.

In the second half the ‘fun’ spirals out of control. The Riot club start talking politics and the views they express are charmless and reactionary. Their sexual politics are demonstrated by their treatment of the ‘escort’ one of them has hired to pleasure the group and the way they treat the pub landlord’s daughter who is their waitress. They think everything is for sale and everyone can be bought off.

In the end they beat up the pub’s owner and collude to lay the whole blame on just one of their number. His reward for taking on their collective guilt will be to go on to be recruited into the political establishment.

This is a true ensemble work. There are ten people on stage for most of the evening and the choreography of their movements and interactions is impeccable. There is singing as well – which is both funny and shows how disconnected as a class these people are.

Laura Wade’s previous plays have been good – but Posh is a major achievement: an exceptional dissection of a particular element of the British ruling class. And becomes even more poignant as our nation is now ruled by a caucus of public school educated multi-millionaires who graduated through such dining clubs and who, more pertinently, don’t actually have a mandate for their destruction of civil society.

Royal Court

Women Beware Women

By Thomas Middleton

This production of Women Beware Women is rather disappointing. The action – particularly in the first half – seems dwarfed by the size of the Olivier stage – especially as most of the scenes are small scale and intimate. This seems to be a perennial problem with modern stagings of Jacobean theatre – frequently the material demands intimacy and claustrophobic settings but seems diminished when open out in a larger space.

The essence of the play is an examination of greed and corruption, which, of course, ends in disaster and multiple deaths. The set is a giant revolve – grandiose on one side, small-scale back stairs on the other. The music which director Marianne Elliot had described as jazzy and bluesy in a pre-performance platform talk is in fact more Latin to my ears and rather unmemorable.

There is some good acting however: Harriet Walter as Livia, Samuel Barnett as Leantio and Lauren O’Neill as Bianca. The much-hyped Vanessa Kirby in the role of Isabella is rather poor – her vocal skill is far less impressive than the rest of the cast. Towards the end there is a ‘masque’ scene, which leads up to the deaths of the main characters. While reasonably striking it is over-long. Altogether Women Beware Women is OK but not great.


Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: March


By Phillip Glass

It was in 2007 that I first saw this production of Satyagraha. It’s notable for being directed and designed by Phelim McDermot and Julian Crouch of Improbable Theatre. It’s spectacular to look at and the music is engaging.

The opera deals with Gandhi’s early years in South Africa where he becomes radicalised and embarks on his career as political reformer.

The instrumental interludes are illustrated by magical stage business involving puppets, aerialists, copious amounts of newspaper and sellotape. Looking back at my 2007 notes I find I had reservations about the production. Having seen it again, I can’t really see why: it’s actually great – and I would go and see it again if I could.


Ghost Stories

By Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman

A second visit to see Ghost Stories at the Lyric in Hammersmith.

I enjoy the show much more this time round. It’s easier to see how neatly constructed it is and how it undercuts expectations in the way it moves from comedy to tragedy.

The horrors get darker as it moves along. It remains technically impressive; scene changes are slickly managed and add to the tension. There is skilful use of light and sound and optical illusion.

Even though I knew what was coming, there were still several moments providing satisfying frights and frissons

Lyric Hammersmith

Review of 2010 - what was missed out: February

The 14th Tale

Inua Ellams is a word and graphic artist and this is the story of Ellams himself. Brought up in Nigeria, he moves with his family to London and then, following his father’s job, to Dublin and again back to London.

This is also the story of a boy growing to manhood, the trouble he gets into, which is both compounded by, yet in many ways, not dictated by his immigrant status. The narrative deals with stories of his experiences in Nigeria, Ireland and London.

Ellams’ performance is assured and engaging. He presents the immigrant experience, coupled with the male experience of growing up, in a poetic language that is amusing, poignant and self aware. His use of language is constantly inventive and delightful: for example, his younger self’s double take at the ‘black’ argot of his white school fellow Gary, and resonant phrases such as ‘a hurricane of nuns’ which linger long in the mind.

The 14th Tale is staged in a minimalist fashion and is all the more effective for this. The use of lighting, sound and pauses adds to the dramatic narrative. And it all builds to a satisfying conclusion.


The Power Of Yes

by David Hare.

This is Hare’s take on the collapse of capitalism dome in the style of his verbatim theatre as exemplified by Stuff Happens and The Permanent Way. We have seats in the front row of the circle, which is always a nice place to sit.

It’s performed on a more or less bare stage with some graphics projected above and behind from time to time. The narrative takes us from the ideology of Thatcherism up to the present economic collapse. The conceit is that an author “David Hare’ assisted by a researcher (Amanda Rooper) try to explain capitalism’s crisis by talking to the major players in the economic farce. It works well as Hare doesn’t impose his views on events – his frustration with the mealy mouthed answers he gets doesn’t really erupt until towards the end. The differing strands of capitalist thought are given equal weight and it’s up to us the audience (or rather the tax payers who bail them out) to decide whose view we favour. As an overview of how the world economy got to this state and a sketch of the characters of the major players it is entertainingly informative and induces a feeling of anger – if you share the view that the crisis was caused by greed, hubris and social inadequacy. The idea that society is now nothing more than an economic transaction is shown to be the hollow nonsense it palpably is – not least from the statements of some of those involved in the collapse of capitalism.

The only odd thing in the play is an implicit suggestion that there is a strange sexual tension between the ‘author’ and the researcher whenever they’re on stage together.

Well-performed and staged, the play is more engaging and multi-faceted than the subject matter might suggest.


The Habit of Art

By Alan Bennett

Bennett’s latest play at the Lyttelton is called The Habit of Art and deals with an imaginary meeting between the poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. The action takes the form of a rehearsal - at the NT - of a play about this imagined meeting. So, we get sizeable chunks of the play and the reactions of the cast and crew to it while the author watches and intervenes. The celebrity director is away furthering his career elsewhere, so the rehearsal is led by a stage manager, played by Frances de la Tour.

This structure allows Bennett to comment on the nature of performance, how biography works, the relationship between music and poetry and the lives of gay men in an age when homosexuality was illegal. As it’s Bennett there are many humorous scenes and brilliant lines. While some of the humour may be self-regarding there’s always an acid edge to it that means it doesn’t become complacent.

Richard Griffiths is excellent as the actor playing Auden and Alex Jennings as the one playing Britten.


Review of 2010 - what was missed out: January

The Woman Black

By Stephen Mallatratt

This is a touring production of The Woman In Black and we catch it at Richmond Theatre. It’s based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name and has been running in the West End for almost 20 years.

Basically it’s a two-hander with a non-speaking ‘lady in black’ who glides around the stage on a few occasions. At first the adaptation seems laboured: the conceit is that the younger solicitor who experienced the ghostly events as a young man enlists the help of an actor so that he can tell this story from his youth to other memories of his family. It introduces the idea of a narrative within a narrative – a frequent device of this time of Victorian supernatural tale – as well as engaging (even if only peripherally) with ideas of performance and how to be effectively convincing in performance.

After the slightly tedious set up for the storytelling we get into the tale itself. It is here that the power of the narrative engages particularly. The young solicitor is sent somewhere geographically imprecise but seems to be far to the north and east of London. He goes to clear up the estate of a recently deceased old client who lives in an isolated house cut off by the tide twice a day just outside a small town. Locals do not talk to him about events at the house but he gets a clear sense of something peculiar having gone on there.

The key incidents of the haunting of the house and the spooking of the young man, together with the unfurling of the mystery surrounding the law firm’s dead client are skilfully related. The staging is simple but works extremely well. Surprise and frisson come from apparently simple devices such as a rocking chair and the disarrangement of a previously tidy room.

It was an entertaining evening’s theatre, well performed by two actors who have both been in the West End production as well.

Richmond Theatre

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops

By Charles Dickens

Simon Callow performed two of Dickens dramatic monologues at the Riverside Studios.

The stories were typically Dickensian being both amusing and sentimentally manipulative. Mr Chops - about a deaf and dumb girl - was especially sentimental, while Dr Marigold - a rumbustuous tale about carny folk and a dwarf - was more amusingly poignant. Simon Callow's performance in both simply but effectively staged tales was excellent.

Riverside Studios

Monday, 15 November 2010

On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco/Can Cause Death

David Bradley in a platform performance of a one-act play by Chekhov – On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco. It concerns a man who is giving – at his wife’s behest – a lecture on this very subject. He however is a smoker and a dissatisfied person. Instead of giving the lecture his discusses his failed dreams, his disappointing family life and the machinations of his wife who – we are led to believe – will soon be watching from the wings. He comes out with many of the tropes of the disappointed male, implying that the blame lies with his wife and six – or is it seven – daughters, as well as the fact his house is number 13 and has 13 windows. It is very amusing and elicits throaty chuckles of appreciation from many male members of the audience, many of whom are much younger than me.

Then, while plangent music is played, Bradley transforms himself into a woman. This is done slowly and purposefully – which is very effective. The actor is now the wife of the lecturer who has recently died. She is giving a eulogy at his funeral. This part of the drama is written by Alison Carr and it represents the wife’s view of the marriage of 33 years. Interestingly it provokes more laughter that the male viewpoint did and from a variety of voices. Her view is that the husband was a hopeless case of unfocussed ambition and desire who failed to follow anything through; she tried to help as best she could but he failed to thrive. I think this interpretation of his character is implicit in Chekhov’s original and the juxtaposition of the two pieces makes for a very satisfying three-quarter of an hour. Bradley’s performance is excellent and the simple staging –it takes places on the set of another play in the Cottesloe repertoire – enables us to concentrate on the drama. It receives a justifiably enthusiastic response.

Cottesloe Theatre

(and Northern Stage 17-18 February 2011)

Friday, 15 October 2010

Ivan and the Dogs by Hattie Naylor

Ivan and the Dogs written by Hattie Naylor is based on the true story of a child who lived with dogs in Yeltsin era Moscow (the 1990s).

A small boy lives with his mother and abusive stepfather in a Moscow tenement. It is a time of economic collapse and the rise of gangster capitalism. Drug use and alcoholism are rampant and civil society seems to be collapsing. The cost of surviving is high. So, unnecessary luxuries – such as pet dogs – are discarded. They live in packs on the edges of cities. Children are also discarded, and the four-year-old Ivan decides to leave his intolerable home environment voluntarily.

The play recounts his experience of trying to survive among homeless adults and children. This is more difficult than might be imagined as both adults and children want to exploit rather than help him. The pack dogs turn out to be different, however. After initial suspicion the dogs and Ivan become mutually dependent; in effect they become a surrogate family.

This inter-species cooperation is a stark contrast to human exploitation and manipulation. Eventually, though, society recaptures the boy at the expense of his canine family. He is taken back into the human system and finds some sort of life despite the fact his mother has died in the interim.

Ivan and the Dogs started life as a radio play and is essentially a monologue. But it is imaginatively staged and has an excellent soundscape to fill out and colour the story.

Polish actor Rad Kaim plays the boy Ivan. His quietly intense performance draws the audience in and ensures the utmost concentration on the unfolding tale. This is an engaging, moving and thought-provoking play, imaginatively staged and directed.

Soho Theatre until 6th November

Monday, 29 March 2010

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth – a play of darkness political ambition, violence and brutality, is one that never seems out of fashion. The employment of violence and terror to seize and retain power seems to be constant features of human society. In this sense the themes of Macbeth are universal; they don’t just apply to Jacobean England and Scotland. It is a play frequently performed round the world because people find its story has a resonance for them.

Currently at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre, this latest production from Cheek By Jowl is stimulating, stark and dark. The stage is bare and there are no props to speak of: wooden boxes serve as seating from time to time. Fights, battles and murders are mimed; the witches are devolved into the ensemble: as are the many lords and thanes surrounding King Duncan’s court.

Duncan is blind – both literally and to ‘noble’ Macbeth’s machinations. The comic porter scene is grotesque and jarring. The sense of ‘warriors’ bonding in a manly fashion is conveyed well but also illustrates the disjunction between obedience to state demands and the potential abuse of power.

Macbeth is a fast-moving play: the eponymous thane goes from a brave soldier upholding the status quo and overthrowing a potential usurper, to becoming an actual usurper of state power himself in a few short scenes. He quickly gains this power but gets mired deeper in brutality and murder trying to retain it.

He soon alienates most of those around him and clings to his position by employing fear, terror and murderous violence. The only support the Macbeths essentially have is what they give each other and – as they ponder and reanalyse their crimes – this mutual support becomes increasingly vital but difficult.

One of the high points of the evening is Macduff’s response to the news of the murder of his wife and children. The straightforward humanity of his reaction offers a fine contrast to the – in many ways – over-analytical, and essentially self-inflicted torments of Macbeth and his wife. Macduff’s reaction also offers a further contrast to the ambiguity of Banquo’s response to the Witches’ predictions about himself and Macbeth that have set in motion the train of events. It is almost possible to suspect that, had Macbeth not arranged for his murder, Banquo too might have become a player in the dark political game overtaking Scotland.

Will Keen as Macbeth and Anastasia Hille as his wife give fine, edgy performances as the Macbeths move from crime to madness to death, Ryan Kiggell is an ambiguous Banquo and David Caves as Macduff conveys well the possibility for the survival of humanity and responsibility in a volatile and murderous world.

Silk Street Theatre Barbican until 10th April

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

Last seen on a London stage 36 years ago in an RSC production, Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard returns to the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a new version by Andrew Upton.

The story centres on a family called the Tubins and is set in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, in 1918. The First World War is coming to an end and the Germans are retreating; the civil war in Russia is in full flow with Nationalist Cossacks, the Russian Red Army and the White Guard (members of the Tsarist army) all fighting for control of Kiev.

The Tubins – the White Guards of the title - are presented in a sympathetic light. In character, the family and their friends are similar to those in a Chekhov play – except they are perhaps not as fully realised. They are a class of people out of tune with their times, whose sense of entitlement coupled with an intellectual and moral inertia leaves them unable to act or seriously influence their own destinies. The tensions in their lives are between the historical reality they are living through and their idealised interpretation of the sort of society they imagine they live in. They are only vaguely aware thet their dreams and nostalgic outlook are actually being overtaken by the advance of history.

However, Bulgakov also shows us that even the privileged (the Tubins) can be betrayed by those they defer to, such as the occupying German forces and their own White Guard High Command. This is most potently illustrated by the flight of Talberg, Elena Tubin’s husband, who leaves his wife and brothers-in-law to their fate in Kiev while he saves himself and his political ambitions by fleeing to Germany. Similarly Shervinsky an aide-de-camp of the Germans’ puppet ruler of the Ukraine changes his position depending whichever rival force is in the ascendancy in order to survive.

This welcome revival of Bulgakov’s play is spectacularly staged: the Tubins’ apartment glides to the rear of the Lyttelton to be replaced by the vast headquarters of the occupying Germans, which in turn is supplanted by the cramped Headquarters of the Nationalist army rising from beneath the stage. These tricks give a sense of the epic scale of the events of the Civil War and how easily individuals can be swept away in the turmoil.

Howard Davies directs a fine ensemble cast. There are notable performances from Conleth Hill as the chameleon like Shervinsky and Pip Carter as the comedic Larion – the Tubins’ cousin.

Lyttelton Theatre

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

In this touring production originating from the Theatre Royal in Bath, Rosamund Pike shows that Hedda Gabler truly is a female stage character as destructive as Lady Macbeth.

Hedda is bored, spoilt and manipulative; the daughter of a military man, she has recently married the pedestrian academic Tesman. They have just returned from their five-month honeymoon; a time largely spent in pursuing Tesman’s bookish research interests rather than Hedda’s more worldly ones - or indeed, what would be most natural of all, sharing a romantic holiday after their wedding.

The society they return to is small, limited in imagination and conventional. The men in it are boorish, self-obsessed and lacking in empathy. The woman – whatever their station – merely exist to serve the needs of the men.

However, Hedda does have free will and even some power. She chooses to exercise this in a malign and bewilderingly destructive way when Thea Elvsted and Loevborg, figures from Hedda’s and Tesman’s past, re-enter their lives.

In this production sparky young woman are paired with much older duller men. The unattached males are either sexual predators (Judge Brack) or fatally flawed dreamers with a destructive weakness (Loevborg and his alcoholism). The women depict various sorts of service that the male world requires from them – servant, mother substitute, clerical assistant, sexual conquest.

When Hedda destroys the only copy of Loevborg’s major work – having already urged him to suicide – the stage darkens while she burns his book page by page in the stove. There is a palpable sense of evil in the act.

The conclusion of the play is equally chilling. Hedda is ignored while it is agreed that Tesman and Mrs Elvsted will reconstruct Loevborg’s work from his notes, while Judge Brack will cover up Hedda’s role in Loevborg’s suicide – as long as she satisfies his rapacious appetites. She is as entrapped into her suicide as she entrapped Loevborg into his.

This is a compelling play simply and effectively staged. Director Adrian Noble draws fine performances from a strong cast, with Rosamund Pike a notable Hedda.

Now touring to Nottingham and Oxford.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Really Old, Like Forty Five

In many ways this is a timely play: there is current public debate about how society could or should deal with an aging population; and how issues of humanity and compassion can be offset against the economic demands of government and the healthcare industry.

Written by Tamsin Oglesby, Really Old, Like Forty Five – whose action appears to take place in the near future – does indeed set out to look at these issues. The story concerns three aged siblings (reliably played by Marcia Warren, Judy Parfitt and Gawn Grainger) in varying stages of dementia or physical decay. It looks at their relationships with each other and younger generations, and raises the notion of the old having to adopt non-biological grandchildren in order to receive government subsidies and maintain their independent existence.

This strand of the narrative is counter pointed by the scientific and economic machinations of a trio of government advisors. Their domain is suspended above the main stage, which suggests that they have a god-like status in their dealings with and manipulations of the merely mortal elderly.

Altogether the play raises many serious and complex issues. However, while it deals with them in an occasionally amusing fashion, it lacks any dramatic analysis of the subject and fails to give any idea that the characters are anything other than sit-com stereotypes – the batty but feisty old lady masking her physical decline, the eternally youthful older man looking increasingly inappropriate as he tries to maintain an ageless guise; the pregnant teenager with a heart of gold; the scientist brought down by his craven submission to political and economic expediency.

The one outstanding creation in Really Old, Like Forty Five is a robot nurse. Even this character - exquisitely played by Michela Meazza - is actually no more than a camp fantasy, which generates easy laughs without being at all thought provoking in the wider context of the play’s concerns.

Ultimately, this is a rather a disappointing evening’s theatre. It feels like an opportunity missed or an early draft of something that needs more work and context to turn it into a powerful and entertaining drama, rather than the cosy comedy it is at the moment.

Cottesloe Theatre (until 20th April)