“The commons, like an angry hive of bees that want their leader, scatter up and down”

Henry VI part 1, Act 3, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

If there was ever a political year we can be certain will be dramatised, it’s 2016. One can only hope it will be James Graham writing the script, given the poignancy and wittiness he lends 1970s politics in This House. blog-3First produced in the National in 2012, this revival was clearly calculated to highlight a growing sense of political déjà vu – see the first three lines of the blurb for details: “Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?”

Set amongst the Whips’ offices in the heart of parliament, the play sees the harassed and strained Whips attempt to control a bunch of chaotic and unruly MPs in a government which is hanging by a thread. Sick and dying politicians are wheeled in for motion after motion because each and every vote matters like never before. It’s this atmosphere of chaos, the real drama of politics, which the play captures so well.

The protagonists are the two Deputy Chief Whips. Steffan Rhodri (aka Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey) plays the Labour hardman Walter Harrison, whilst Nathaniel Parker is his slickly spoken Tory opponent, Jack Weatherill. Both of these characters were engaging and, crucially, likeable. blog-4As a rule, it’s the unlikeable characters who create better theatre (see Hedda Gabler, Richard III, A View From the Bridge for details). Here, however, it felt important to give both men some sort of integrity, perhaps because of the political subject. It’s refreshing to see people with contrasting opinions and world-views represented as equally understandable, and equally human. It’s not that the stereotypes of stuck-up Tory and chippy Labourite weren’t there; Malcolm Sinclair was gloriously pompous as Conservative Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins, whilst as his Labour counterpart Phil Daniels was equally gloriously foul-mouthed a la Malcom Tucker. But whilst showing the ludicrousness of British politics in abundance, This House also paints an overall picture of the nobility at the heart of the system. Throughout the play, frazzled MPs complain about the presence of people messing up an otherwise perfect way of government. And whilst that may be true, the ending shows the flipside; that human emotions, codes of conduct, and honour systems, are also part of the beauty of the British political system. blogYou come away with a deep sense of respect for the people behind-the-scenes, who dedicate their lives to making sure the party they believe is right remains in power – even if a sense of futility often haunts their frantic manoeuvrings.

Phew. That’s enough lyricism for one review. Back to the practicalities of theatre. The staging at the Garrick Theatre is mostly well done. There is a sense of streamlined chaos to the people pacing back and forth within the two Whip offices onstage. The best bit of direction is having the Speaker of the House announce each character by their title as they enter (e.g. “the Member for Oxfordshire East”). A small issue was that the Speaker changed after the interval – in itself not a problem, but it made it appear like this new Speaker was a character who’d already appeared. Which he wasn’t. Just a bit unnecessarily confusing.

I also had a big problem with a part of the staging. The blog-6offices are surrounded by the wooden walls of the House of Commons, with a whole upper level of green seats filled with audience members looking down on the action. This in itself is a great idea, an attempt to recreate the intimacy and audience engagement of the Dorfman. However, any action on this upper level was completely invisible to those sitting in the back half of the stalls (like me). The majority of the drama, to be fair, took place on the mainstage, but quite a few scenes (including one immediately after a key character’s death) were totally hidden from view. I understand transfers are difficult, I understand older theatres are built with different requirements, and I understand this may have looked fantastic to the rest of the audience, but theatre is expensive. Just getting there takes effort and time and money, and I think directors like Jeremy Herrin should factor in the view from every seat when they produce a show. That’s not to say everyone has to have a full view at all times – that’s just unachievable – but it shouldn’t be physically impossible for a whole section of audience to see entire scenes.

Anyway, rant over. Despite these flaws, this is an engaging, informative and witty political drama, with an important sense of poignancy throughout.blog-5 The ensemble cast are excellent; I particularly liked Lauren O’Neill as Ann Taylor, the only female Whip, and Kevin Doyle as her boss Michael Cocks. For someone who knew virtually nothing about this period of politics, the anecdotes and stories that feature (including Michael Heseltine seizing the parliamentary mace and John Stonehouse’s fake disappearance) seem almost unbelievable. But funny. The blackly comedic atmosphere is what this play gets right. It makes for an entertaining and powerful night out – just don’t sit at the back of the stalls.

This House at the Garrick Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

“Now is she in the very lists of love”

Venus and Adonis, Line 595

William Shakespeare

This post was sponsored by TheatreTickets.uk. All opinions, however, are my own.

Late November is the time I start writing lists; lists of food to buy, carols to learn, cards and presents to give, and (yay) presents I want. With this is mind, I thought I’d bring my festive list-making to Mingled Yarns, starting with…

THEATRE TO SEE AT CHRISTMAS THAT ISN’T ACTUALLY CHRISTMASSY

So. You’re in London for December and you want to see some theatre, but you don’t want to go full-on pantomime-Nutcracker-Snowman just yet, but you still have to find something all your family/friends can go to and not leave feeling totally depressed. Whatever the state of the world might be (don’t get me started), it is almost Advent after all. Look no further for the ultimate list of non-christmassy-yet-not-totally-depressing-and-serious-theatre-on-at-the-moment (title needs work I admit):

  1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This is just a stunner of a show. I saw it about three years ago, and I would willingly go back again, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love it, blogregardless of age. The book itself (by Mark Haddon) is a murder-mystery-cum-family-drama-cum-coming-of-age novel, beautifully told through the eyes of autistic fifteen-year-old Christopher. The play is all of this and more, its digitally illuminated set adding an unforgettable extra element. And there’s a real live puppy. A dog isn’t just for Christmas, but they are extra adorable on a cold winter’s night. If you want a piece of really good theatre, which just so happens to be incredibly heart-warming, this is the thing to see.

Gielgud Theatre.

  1. The Lion King

If you aren’t awed by the opening scene of this musical, we will never understand each other. blog-5It is just factually one of the best musical openings ever in theatre. Full stop. I’ve seen The Lion King three times, and never got bored of ‘The Circle of Life’ being belted out at full blast, whilst actors in the most gorgeous costumes became elephants, gazelles, giraffes, flamingos, and – of course – lions, before my eyes. Like Curious Incident, this is spectacle theatre, but with a simply moving core story of love and loss. And, of course, there’s the cracking song list: ‘Hakuna Matata’, ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, ‘He Lives in You’, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’… BRB just going off to have a private Disney singalong.

Lyceum Theatre.

  1. Les Miserables

Okay, okay, I assume you’re either thinking a) this musical is incredibly mainstream and overrated go away, or b) is a musical about a failed French revolution which includes prostitution, suicide, child-blog-3death and the word ‘miserable’ in its title really the thing to see at Christmas? If you’re an a) you might as well skip to the next suggestion, because I’m not ashamed to be mainstream, where Les Mis is concerned. I will never stop loving this musical. If b) YES. With the political shitstorm going on at the moment, everyone needs a bit of classic Les Mis ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ inspiration over the Christmas break. The finale will give you the same kind of happy-sad-crying-feeling as the end of Love Actually.

Queens Theatre.

  1. The Play That Goes Wrong

Peter Pan Goes Wrong too festive for you?blog-4 Go to see Mischief Theatre’s original, so successful that it’s even transferring to Broadway next year. You can see my full review here, but a quick summary:
hilarious family-friendly farce which gets you involved from the moment you step inside the theatre. The characters-within-characters are fully recognisable to anyone who’s dipped their toe into amdram at any point in their life. My mum and brothers went to see this on my recommendation and absolutely loved it. Now’s the time to see it, so you can look ahead-of-the-crowd to any American friends you might have – and it’s the perfect piece of non-festive fun.

Duchess Theatre

  1. Jersey Boys

The last musical on the list, and one with its own blockbuster movie attached. blog-2But the live show is always better than the film, trust. Before seeing Jersey Boys, I had no idea how much incredible music Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were responsible for (hint: it’s a lot). The story itself, of how the band formed and broke up over the years, is relatively interesting, and the way that each of the Four Seasons gets to tell their own part of the story is clever, but it’s ultimately the music that makes the show. One of the best jukebox musicals out there.

Piccadilly Theatre

  1. Nice Fish

Confession: I haven’t actually seen this yet.blog-2 I have tickets booked, however, and I feel like the combination comedy, Mark Rylance and fish costumes (if you turn up in one you can get free tickets!) is sure to be a good one. The reviews haven’t necessarily been overwhelming, but Rylance is bae so you’ll almost definitely see some great acting whatever the writing’s like.

Harold Pinter Theatre

 

You can find tickets to all these amazing shows on TheatreTickets.uk, who sponsored this post. Hopefully coming up soon, lists of the ultimate Christmassy shows to see, and my fav festive books, treats, music, TV shows and films… Not that I’m over-excited or anything…

elf

“O, she is rich in beauty”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of great things at the St James Theatre recently, and indeed lots of great theatre starring Catherine Tate, so buying tickets for Miss Atomic Bomb was an obvious one. blog 5It’s also refreshing to hear of a new musical that isn’t based on an existing film, book, or music; which has a completely original plot. And original this certainly is! It’s just a shame that the five years which have apparently gone into developing the production aren’t particularly evident from the overall scrappiness of the narrative, as hard as the performers work to cover this up.

To quickly summarise the plot for you – or at least attempt to (!) – the whole thing takes place around Las Vegas, where in the deserts of Nevada, farm-girl Candy Johnston (Florence Andrews) and her fashion designer friend Myra (Catherine Tate) watch the atom-bombs go off like they’re a “second sunset”.

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Through a series of extremely random coincidences involving an escaped soldier, a pair of ruthless gangsters, an officious bank employee, and a lot of dead sheep, Candy ends up deciding to enter the brand new Las Vegas ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ beauty pageant. As I said, it’s complicated.

The thing is, there are quite a few funny moments in here; it’s not like it isn’t an enjoyable evening out. ‘All My Sheep Are Gone’ is utterly ridiculous, the drag queen entrant Carol (Charles Brunton) to the beauty pageant is fab, and I really appreciated the hyperbolic Les Mis-Javert tribute by Daniel Boys at the end – but it was just all so haphazardly put together that it was hard to focus a lot of the time.

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It felt like each idea with potential had been developed by a different person or team and then they’d had a quick meeting and kind of smushed it all together.

This means there are several amusing jokes either buried under tons of dancing Las Vegas girls, crazy scientists or army generals, or drawn out for rather too long – like Simon Lipkin and Tate’s duet about sugar daddies and beards (I can’t find the titles of the songs anywhere, and I was too cheap to buy a programme, sorry!).

 

To be more succinct, the jokes are either dwelt on too much, or not dwelt on enough. The timing of the script seems off, a fault saved only by the excellent comic timing of some of the cast, particularly Lipkin and Tate.

The singing was also of an extremely high quality.blog 4 In the lead male role of Joey, Dean John-Wilson produced some absolutely beautiful moments, particularly those in his higher range. I found myself thinking about downloading the soundtrack simply because of the vocals to be honest. It was just a shame we didn’t really get a proper exploration of his character; and that, in the twenty-first century, we’re still lumped with the whole ‘boy-meets-girl, they fall in love almost at first sight (or at least within the space of a song), and change everything bad about themselves in order to get together’ trope. To be fair, Joey and Candy’s relationship could perhaps be taken as a pastiche of this, but only at a pinch.

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Thank god Tate and Lipkin’s characters had a more interesting relationship. Still, Andrews’ voice, too, was lovely and very expressive. Tate had a fine pair of lungs on her, although – as I think many have noted – her accent sways from Southern to Australian and back with astonishing rapidity.

This is a show, then, where the overall scrappiness of plot, and the general blandness of the music lets a strong cast down. Tate and Lipkin’s comic talent deserves better than jokes about having a long name, or being shot in the foot. I should also mention David Birrell’s excellently camp number in the role of General Westcott. There were just so many random moments in this musical that the real issues of nuclear bombs, when to run away and when to stick around, and indeed the central love story between Candy and Joey weren’t focused on nearly enough. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable evening out; the cast is of a high enough quality to smooth over the cracks, and there are quite a few pretty funny moments. Miss Atomic Bomb isn’t one you should be hurrying to buy tickets for, but if you’ve already booked definitely go, you’ll have a fun night out.

Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre: 2/5 stars

“For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

William Shakespeareblog 7

“The sex is in the heel” croons Matt Henry’s Lola in the new West End musical Kinky Boots,
one of our latest imports from Broadway, although based on a British film, set in England, and indeed inspired originally by a real fetish footwear factory in Northampton. These trans-Atlantic crossovers make for some brilliantly British characters, some Broadway-style dance numbers, but also some slightly weird accents along the way.

Henry is clearly the standout star of the show. His Lola (and Simon – if you hadn’t realised, Lola is a rather fabulous drag queen, worthy of RuPaul’s show) blog 1is a revelation by turns frightening, confident, movingly vulnerable, and often incredibly witty. Killian Donnolly, meanwhile, does well as the difficult straight-man part Charlie, although I found the incredibly twanged American accent whilst he was singing a little put on – saying this, my brother did point out the lyrics must have been originally written for American actors, so perhaps Donnolly was simply forced into it by the rhythm and rhyme.

His love interest Lauren (and I refuse to apologise for spoilers here; this is musical theatre after all, darlings, and we all know in musical-land, it’s virtually impossible for two people who start off together to end up together – unless of course they’re married) was played with great energy and gusto by Sophie Isaacs blog 6– who is actually the understudy, though you absolutely couldn’t tell from her performance. She is the typically awkward Brit; her solo number of The History of Wrong Guys was one of my highlights of the show, with some fab choreography delivered with a great sense of comedy and a touching message underneath it all.

Don, the factory worker who reacts the most aggressively to the arrival of Lola and her gang of six impeccably dressed ‘Angels’, was also played by an understudy on the night I visited, with Tim Prottey-Jones taking on the role with aplomb. The Angels themselves were perhaps the most impressive performers of the night, dancing their way through the big songs – which included running on conveyer belts – all in insanely high heels and extravagant costumes, massive smiles, and not a fault inKINKY BOOTS sight. The two kids playing Young Charlie and Young Lola/Simon were adorable. George (Michael Hobbs), the wise chief factory worker with a bit of a soft spot for Lola’s way of life it seems, was great fun to watch, especially within the group numbers.

The songs themselves – perhaps the most important part of a musical – are seriously good fun. Cyndi Lauper has written some great tunes, two of which I’ve already mentioned, and I found I’m Not My Father’s Son, although very cliché musical theatre, to be surprisingly emotional. The ridiculous Everybody Say Yeah just before the interval, whilst saying incredibly little, is classic musical exuberance. These aren’t necessarily tunes I’ll be playing and replaying on my iPod, but a couple of them definitely stuck in my head after the show, and I enjoyed them all while they were going on.blog 3

Yet this production didn’t quite live up to my expectations – the movie (starring Chiwetel Ejiofor) is really fab, and actually the musical has gotten lots of five star reviews, and a few Tony Awards to boot. However, although I enjoyed myself, this wasn’t an evening I came out of amazed, or blown away, or particularly thoughtful. It was a good, fun evening, with some solid tunes and a fantastic performance from Henry. It’s not, however, one I’m desperate to go back and re-watch – and that’s probably my biggest test of the success of a musical. With Kinky Boots, I’m glad I saw it, but it’s not one I’ll be saving up my money to buy another ticket for as soon as possible.

Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre: 3/5 stars

“A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

When I heard the Mischief Theatre team were doing a Christmas version of their hilarious hit The Play That Goes Wrong (in my top ten shows of bloglast year in fact), I urged my Mum to book it for the whole family as a Christmas treat – last year we went to see The Scotsboro Boys, a musical which, whilst incredibly thought-provoking, wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre, however, was exactly the opposite. Not particularly thought-provoking perhaps but packed full of laughs, as the poor Cornley Polytechnic Amateur Dramatic Society attempted vainly to deal with an electrocuted Tinkerbell, an uncontrollable revolving stage, and some incredibly indiscrete voice recordings whilst putting on a Christmas production of J.M. Barrie’s much-loved Peter Pannot a pantomime as co-director Chris Bean (played by actual co-writer Henry Shields with aplomb – and such stressed tension I’m surprised the vein on his forehead didn’t burst).

Having seen The Play That Goes Wrong I was a little more prepared this time for the pre-show antics in the stalls, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable – plus I was thrilled to see a certain Fred Gray who I last saw at the Edinburgh Fringe as the starring role in Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens… this was rather more family friendly of course and involved many less drag queens and sudden strip teases as I’m sure parents will be pleased to hear.

blog 1The play, once it started, took a very similar format to the original version, as is to be expected, except that the directorial apologetic speech was given not only by Chris Bean but also by new co-director Robert Grove (played with enormous gusto by second co-writer Henry Lewis), with a new dimension of competition added to the mix of theatrical disaster and comedic mayhem. In fact, this play as a whole was much more focused on the behind-the-scenes relationships of the actors as well as the slapstick of the original. Apologies, by the way, for referring so frequently to The Play That Goes Wrong, but it is very hard not to compare, given its obvious connection! I did, however, take my Dad with me who’d hadn’t seen the first play – and as a result perhaps enjoyed the Christmas version slightly more than my Mum, my brothers and I.

Now I’m not saying I didn’t have a great time at Peter Pan Goes Wrong – the production has some genius moments (I loved Dennis (aka Jonathan Sayer the third of the co-writers) who, due to not being able to remember his lines, wore headphones throughout, leading to some great moments as he repeated literally everything he was broadcast). And the cast in general are just so comical and likeable and enthusiastic that I would basically go see anything they were in.blog 3 All those who had to battle with “flying” across the stage were particularly impressive; I can’t imagine just doing it right is easy, but to deliberately do it badly and make that funny rather than pathetic or frustrating shows serious talent and practice. Greg Tannahill (Peter Pan – at least for most of it) and Chris Leask (Trevor the Techie, determinedly fixing the scenery no matter what else was going on, and forced to constantly step in and attempt to fix things) were particularly skilled at this whole complicated flying-and-banging-into-things malarkey.

I loved the girl power felt between an effervescent Nancy Wallinger as about a gazillion parts, including a feisty Tinkerbell, and the untiring Charlie Russell, heroically tying the whole play together as the flirty Sandra, playing Wendy to several different Peters. Dave Hearn as the shyly smiling Max, playing both Michael and the Crocodile, had the entire audience behind him by the end. Tom Edden was a new and welcome addition to the group as the Narrator, flinging piles of glitter into the air and jolting on and off the stage on his ‘magical’ chair.

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What I’m trying to get across here is that all the elements of a great show are here; slapstick chaos reigns on-stage and the characters are foolish, obnoxious and arrogant, but also so delightfully determined to complete their show at any cost that you just can’t help but will them along -a bit like Bottom and the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the same time, for me I felt the focus on the intra-cast relationships sometimes took away from the overall comedy. I always find it irritating in TV shows, like House M.D. or OUAT when the key concept, the originality I started watching the show for in the first episode, becomes lost with writers desperate to focus more on complicated human relationships rather than the plot or the cases or, in this case, the gags.

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' play, Press Night, London, Britain - 9 Dec 2015

I mean, maybe I’m just heartless and detached and more interested by curiosities than real personal contact but you know, oh well, I am what I am. And my overriding feelings are that the best moments of this very funny play were when it focused on very small elements (a man dressed as a dog stuck inside a door for example) rather than when it had to take on the big themes of love and jealousy.

Still, the cast are fantastic and the jokes are a-plenty, and it’s a lovely Christmas treat for the family – just remember; it’s not a pantomime.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

(And, by the way, Happy New Year! A round-up of 2015 will be coming soon!)

“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

This is I think the fourth Winter’s Tale production I’ve seen – more different productions even than Romeo and Juliets or King Lears. It seems like this has become the ultimate Christmas Shakespeare (to be fair the clue as to why is kind of in the title), a comedy that so almost becomes a tragedy at several points and involves the infamous Exit pursued by a bear stage direction.blog 5

This production really plays up the Christmas factor as well, and a Victorian Christmas at that (which seems slightly odd given the obsession with the Greek oracle but oh well, this is theatre, we can suspend our belief). The Sicilian court features a Nutcracker-esque Christmas tree, laden with red and gold presents, boxes which are excitedly opened by little Prince Mamillius and handed round to the adults – Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes – who gasp and thank in childish awe and playfulness. blog 2However, this warm and festive world soon has a cold shadow cast over it, the lighting darkens the wide stone hallways and snow, which at the beginning is tossed joyfully over the audience, drops instead at the back of the stage, and later exclusively on Leontes, a picture of grief with white hair and tortured expression.

Now, this is where my English student-ness comes out, but this, and projections of snow swirling around, seemed designed to make the stage reflect one of the gifts most ostentatiously opened at the beginning: a snow globe. Now this is a trope often used, not just in Christmas entertainment but all the year round to show dreams, these dreams or illusions being shattered (think Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story), or a la Sylvia Plath, a stifling glass jar impossible to escape from.blog 1 Obviously, given the relatively dark subject matter (particularly in the first half), it was the latter that director and star Kenneth Branagh chose to focus on. The snow and who is was showered on showed this growing claustrophobia; first of all, a Christmassy sense of togetherness, then the court closing in on itself in the wake of scandal, and then Leontes, alone with his grief and trapped in an icy kingdom of his own making. Even Hermione’s statue set-up had Elsa-from-Frozen levels of frosty beauty, which made it seem like she, too, was trapped in a walled-in winter… and then of course the walls break down, the glass is shattered, and everyone is happy and together yay (except *SPOILER ALERT* Mamillius who’s dead a fact which is always forgotten at the end. I mean, a child died. But oh well get over it and move on. It is Christmas after all.

So as well as getting my lit nerd on, I really enjoyed the less interpretive elements of this production too! Branagh was excellent as the passionately jealous, and then grief-stricken blog 3King Leontes, with Miranda Raison as his resilient, incredibly human, wife Hermione. This is the third time I’ve seen Jessie Buckley in a Shakespearean ‘ingénue’ kind of role (previously she was Miranda in the Globe’s The Tempest and Princess Catherine in the Micheal Grandage Company’s Henry V) and she does pull it off incredibly well, with exactly the right balance of innocence, strength and vitality. Tom Bateman of Shakespeare in Love theatre fame played a vivacious, energetic Florizel who seemed far more at home among the peasants of Bohemia than in the courtly clothes his station required. blog 4In fact, the peasant dance was almost over the top in its determination to focus on the physical and the carnal; especially during the kissing bit of the dance when all the men suddenly started stripping off – which reminded me quite a lot of a university party rather than sheep-shearing festival, but I guess the youthfulness ties the two together? It was definitely fun to watch anyway…

Now, how could I go this far without mentioning the one, the only, Dame Judi Dench, as Paulina. Warm and imperious, she brought both humour and gravity to the stage – particularly in the line I’ve used as my blog title. Her Paulina commanded attention and respect; although she was hilariously blogmanipulative in reminding Leontes of his terrible actions to get him to do things. I kept picturing how they’d have lived day to day for the sixteen years basically alone together – every time they order takeout:
LEONTES: I think I’ll go for the American Hot.

PAULINA: Remember how you caused the untimely deaths of your wife and children because of your outrageous jealousy? And also the death of my own husband?

Leontes bows head in grief

PAULINA: On phone So we’ll have a Margarita each please.

(If someone is a cartoonist and fancies illustrating a situation like this then I would love you forever)

So anyway, back on track. This production of The Winter’s Tale is beautifully designed and very festive, with enough bitterness to make it not a sugar overload. It all feels very filmic, especially the beginning, with lots of atmospheric background music. There were also some really fun comic turns from John Dagliesh as Autoclyus and Jack Colgrave Hirst as Clown. The only element that’s slightly sour is when Paulina and Camillo are conveniently paired together right at the end – but to be fair, that is kind of Shakespeare’s fault. I guess I would have just cut that out if I were Branagh. But that was a very small feature. The actors are great, and the set design is pretty; it’s a lovely production of what seems to have turned into a festive classic.

The Winter’s Tale  at the Garrick Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“Heavenly Rosalind!”

As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a bad critic going into Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre yesterday. I knew nothing about the actual play. I booked based solely on the fact that Nicole Kidman was in it and Michael Grandage was directing. I know. I’ve become a shallow celebrity obsessive. I’m sure Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner would pour shame upon my head.blog 5

So you don’t fall into the same trap, let me quickly fill you in on the basic concept. This new play, written by Anna Ziegler, is another 20th century-scientific-discovery play, a little like Oppenheimer. Photograph 51 is the photograph which proved that DNA had a double helix shape, therefore providing, in the words of the play, “the key to life”. The thing is, the scientist thought to have taken this x-ray, Rosalind Franklin (played by Kidman), has been more or less forgotten by the general public, over the Nobel Prize winners Crick, Watson and Wilkins.

blogWhilst Franklin, and her struggle to work in the male-dominated field of science in the 1950s is undeniably the central focus of this play, Ziegler doesn’t make the gender politics too simplistic; it’s made clear that it isn’t simply a case of men taking credit for women’s ideas, but rather a combination of circumstances and stacked up reasons over time. This subtlety was welcome in a production, which, I felt, made most of the characters rather two-dimensional.

To begin with, I felt the script was a little lazy a times; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of new dramas which, instead of carefully revealing a character – through odd phrases, snatched glances, and the way they interact with others -, simply have the person face the audience, take a pause from the drama, and proceed to talk about fond childhood memories and deep personal thoughts as though they’re on a psychologist’s couch. To make an audience understand your character we shouldn’t need some sort of Freudian analysis!

The real reason this was so irritating was that the acting was far better than I felt the script allowed forblog 4. Kidman commanded the stage when she was on; her British accent was unbelievably good, and she was possessed with a self-control and determination that almost made you excuse all of her character’s rudeness. Although Franklin herself was cold to many of her colleagues, the obvious passion for her own work that Kidman made clear meant that she wasn’t too cold a character overall.

The rest of the cast (all white males, who lurked at the back of the stage, as if constantly judging Franklin and her work) also performed well, although Kidman was by far the standout. Joshua Silver (previously seen in the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Blue Stockings) provided some nicely timed comic relief, as Raymond Gosling, Franklin’s assistant, and possibly the person who actually took the photo. I loved Patrick Kennedy as the most sympathetic of Franklin’s colleagues, Don Caspar; he did have one of the most likeable parts of course, but it was really in Kidman and Kennedy’s interactions that one truly got the excitement and joy of scientific discovery.blog 3 Stephen Campbell Moore played Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague at King’s College London with bumbling awkwardness. One of my favourite actors, Edward Bennett (Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won for the RSC) played Crick, with an energetic, single-minded Will Attenborough as his scientific partner Watson. These two actors played their parts as well as possible, but just weren’t given enough to work with! We had tiny little glances into Crick’s home life with references to his wife, and then heavy soliloquies on Watson’s love of birds and natural curiosity, but these felt slightly clunky. However, the actors were engaging, and showed that Franklin’s difficulty with relationships was not unique; rather each scientist struggled, but Franklin was the only one judged for this, because of her gender.

The set was a nice mix of history and modern, with brick archways along the sides and back of the stage, complete with heaps of bricks around the bottom, as though we were in bombed out London. The stage itself was a grid of white panels which could light up in various arrangements to give the sense of lots of different rooms and spaces, which worked well.blog 2

For £10 tickets (thank you Michael Grandage Company!!), this was a really interesting evening out; the play is informative and engaging – despite having no interval for 95mins I wasn’t bored -, the acting is very well done, and there is both drama and moments of comedy. The gender issue is dealt with very competently, although I found it irritating that Wilkins in a way stole the ending from Franklin. The end was all about their potential relationship, not about Franklin as a person, her interests, her work, her untimely death, her life, which I felt was a huge mistake. There were also missed opportunities for explorations of what the ‘meaning to life’ really means; all the scientists were so focused on discovering the “key to life”; but is that key really just the structure of DNA, or is it something more, something emotional? There were just so many opportunities to do more with this play that weren’t explored fully enough. But I’m still really glad I saw this play – I was justified in my celebrity hunting, and learnt more a fascinating woman in the process.

Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre: 3/5 stars