Prism by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre, 16 September 2017

The neighbours tried hard to put us off this one. Joy and Barry are film aficionados extraordinaire, having been “in the film biz” themselves. They are also knowledgeable about and great admirers of Jack Cardiff, who was one of the pioneers of colour cinematography. I suspect they found the piece uninformative and irritating.

I had trouble getting Daisy out of the house, after Joy had told her unequivocally that this play was garbage and that she & Barry had walked out in irritation at half time. I said we should judge the play for ourselves and we are both glad we did.

It is set at the end of Jack Cardiff’s life. The play tries to show Cardiff looking back on his fascinating life in cinema through the distorted lens of a long, lingering old age with advancing dementia.

I think we are supposed to see analogies between the cognitive distortions of dementia and the the natural distortions of light through prisms and colour lenses.  The latter can lead, ultimately, to beauty and clarity, whereas I’d suggest that dementia struggles to do that.

The play is also meant to show us the impact of Jack Cardiff’s success (and latterly his dementia) on his son Mason and his second wife Niki. I fear that both of those parts were underwritten, perhaps because both of those people are still alive. Indeed the son, Mason Cardiff, is credited as an associate producer of the Hampstead production. As is Robert Lindsay, who plays Jack Cardiff (rather brilliantly) and was very instrumental in encouraging this piece to be written and produced. I believe Lindsay was a neighbour of the Cardiff family in Denham, where the play is set.

Consequently, the normally excellent Claire Skinner had little material to work with, while I fear that Barnaby Kay who played Mason (and also vaguely attempted Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller) was stretched even by his sparse roles.

Actually we thought the stand out performance was Rebecca Night as the young carer, rather casually employed by the Cardiff’s to help Jack with his daily needs and also to help him write his autobiography. The young woman’s unfortunate story formed an interesting sub-plot – potentially more interesting, in my view; that sub-plot bubbled but didn’t really boil.

To my mind, Prism is certainly a flawed play. Terry Johnson is a very capable writer, but I think the conceits of this piece are inherently problematic and the cracks show throughout. There are some superb coups de theatre, though – not least when the boat scene of The African Queen more or less comes to life in front of our eyes on the stage, just before the interval.

Two scenes after the interval were genuine highlights – The African Queen one immediately after the interval and a scene soon after, in which we realise that an explosive earlier scene with the carer and family was perceived by Jack Cardiff to be with Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Arthur Miller.

On balance, we’re glad we have seen this play and glad that we have learnt a bit more about Jack Cardiff through it. But this is not one of Terry Johnson’s nor the Hampstead Theatre’s greatest hits.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead resource on this production.

Mixed reviews so not all that much shown at Hampstead – this search will find most of them for you.

Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Hampstead Theatre, 24 June 2017

We’re on a bit of a roll at the moment; this was another very interesting piece.

It is a bit difficult to describe this play without spoilers – indeed the Hampstead Theatre staff we spoke to were bemoaning the fact that some of the formal reviews contain spoilers. Janie and I always avoid reading the reviews before we see a play/production, so it wasn’t spoiled for us and I’ll try not to spoil it for you.

The first act is a fairly conventional office politics satire set in a magazine publishing house; well acted and with some delightful vignettes. One ranting speech, towards the end of that act, by the chief fact-checker (played by Bo Poraj) will live long in our memories. Still, such office satires have been done many times and we have seen plenty to know that we are not wild about the genre…

…but…

…there is a pivotal moment at the end of the first act which reassured us that the second half of the play would be quite different.

Indeed, the second half was far more interesting and progresses, through two more, shorter, acts, in intriguing ways from the slow build of the first act.

Here is a link to the Hampstead Theatre’s resource on this play/production. 

Gloria has deservedly had good reviews from all the majors. It was a great success in its native USA and should do well in the UK too – at the time of writing the Hampstead run has already been extended and a West End run surely beckons.

Go see it.

Janie and I rewarded ourselves with some Chinese food from Four Seasons afterwards.

Filthy Business by Ryan Craig, Hampstead Theatre, 15 April 2017

Another visit to the Hampstead (upstairs this time), another Ed Hall triumph.

This is a very interesting play with a superb cast, very cleverly staged and directed. All the main papers have given it rave reviews; deservedly so.

You can read all about it here on the Hampstead site, click here, including links to those excellent reviews, sparing me the trouble.

The central story, a Jewish family business dominated by a matriarch who has brought a lot of attitude with her from the old country, naturally resonated with me. Not that the Harris family was at war with itself in the manner of the tragi-comic Solomon family of this play, thank goodness.

Dad’s shop – a relatively tranquil place

Sara Kestelman as the matriarch, Yetta Solomon, was simply superb. We have seen her several times before; I especially remember her in Copenhagen at the RNT years ago and more recently in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide at the Hampstead – click here, but this Yetta role might have been written for her.

As the play went on and the depths of Yetta’s schemes and subterfuges come to light, her character reminded me increasingly of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Perhaps this was Ryan Craig’s intention, as Yetta confides in the audience in very “Dick the Shit” style towards the end of the play.

The ghastliness of the Solomon family and the extent of the machinations at times errs towards caricature, yet Ryan Craig (perhaps combined with Ed Hall’s skilled direction) kept us caring enough about the characters and willing to go with the flow of the plot, even at its extremes. The funny bits are mostly very funny; the confrontational bits thrilling and shocking.

The Yetta Solomon character sees keeping the family together (and in the family business) to be so important as to override pretty much all other practical and moral imperatives. This is Yetta’s flaw, her tragedy.

I recognised some of the characteristics from my own family – the story Yetta tells from her childhood in the shtetl – of chasing Cossack trouble-makers away with a stick – was almost word for word a story I remember my Grandma Ann telling me.

But I don’t believe Grandma Ann used divide and rule to try to keep the Harris family together and she was certainly willing for (indeed she encouraged) her boys to branch out into other businesses – e.g. my father’s and Uncle Alec’s photographic businesses.

Grandma Ann: Harris family business matriarch, yes, machinations, no.

But Filthy Business makes you think well beyond the family and its business. It is a play about the immigrant experience, about London in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, about inter-generational change.

I had been impressed by Ryan Craig’s plays before – we saw The Glass Room at the Hampstead 10+ years ago and more recently The Holy Rosenbergs at the RNt – both of which will find their way to Ogblog in the fullness of time.

To my (and Janie’s) taste, Filthy Business is Ryan Craig’s best play yet and we look forward to more good stuff from him.

As for our grub after the show, we had over-catered so successfully for lunch with Kim and Micky the day before – click here – we had plenty of food for a grazing supper…or three. We chatted through the many interesting issues and great performances we’d just seen as we grazed.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures by Tony Kushner, Hampstead Theatre, 22 October 2016

I’d forgotten how much Tony Kushner likes to write long plays. Perhaps the unfeasibly long title for this play (which Kushner helpfully abbreviates to an Apple-device-like nickname “iHo”) should have reminded me.

But I did remember how superb Angels in America had been in 1993, even though I only saw the first part of that seven-hour epic as I was so poorly the day Janie and I were supposed to see the second half that Janie went to see it alone while I spent the evening (as indeed I had spent the whole day) on the potty.

It had been a long wait for the next Tony Kushner and I snapped up these Hampstead tickets with relish when I saw the superb-looking cast and creatives list for iHo.

Before I forget, here is a link to the Hampstead’s excellent resource on this production of iHo. 

Still, come the weekend of our visit, when I saw that the production was listed as 3 hours and 30 minutes long, my heart sank a bit and I started to formulate contingency, bail-out plans, just in case it was all going to be too much. Two intervals give you extra scope for polite bail-out, of course.

Neither Janie nor I tend to have as much attention span as we once had. Perhaps it is a sign of the times; younger folk these days hardly ever finish a…or perhaps our increasing age decreases our patience – ’nuff said.

I needn’t have worried. The play has plenty going on to hold my attention for that length of time. Janie was less sure about the play than I was, but she was very taken with the performances, the design and the directing.

We ran into John and Linda – a couple we often see at the theatre and who live near the flat in Notting Hill Gate – for the first time in ages – chatting to them made both intervals whizz by.

The play might pick up some criticism for being a long, meandering ramble through an essentially simple plot about a family and their brownstone homestead in Brooklyn. But of course the play covers more than that; homosexuality, capitalism, socialism (and indeed Marxism) naturally show up; to a greater or lesser extent defining characteristics of the complex personalities of the chaotic protagonists.

Central to the plot is the overt and outspoken desire of the central character, a retired longshoreman/union-leader played excellently by David Calder, voluntarily to commit an act of euthanasia. His bisexual employment-lawyer daughter, the equally excellent Tamsin Greig, an intriguing opponent to the idea, matching the old git with her advocacy and connivances to try to steer the outcome her way, metaphorical punch for metaphorical punch.

The rest of the family and their entourages were also wonderfully depicted by this excellent cast. Family row scenes tended to have several people yelling at the same time, yet, through superb writing/directing, I felt that we were getting to hear and follow everything we were supposed to.

Anyway, we saw this production in preview, so the reviews are yet to show. The good ones will (in the fullness of time) be on the Hampstead resource for this production – here’s the link again. You’ll have to find poor/indifferent ones for yourselves unless I decide to return to this page and add some.

I thought this play/production was great and well worth seeing. Janie, less sure about the play, still thought it worth seeing. We both found a light, shawarma supper afterwards well worth eating.

 

 

Wild by Mike Bartlett, Hampstead Theatre, 17 June 2016

Wow, this was great.

Funnily enough, the day before our visit, I had run into Vince Leigh (most recently of Orange Tree/The Brink fame) at the health club. I congratulated him on The Brink and we discussed theatre generally. When I mentioned our impending visit to see Wild, he said he was going to see it that very day. He also told me that the production had experienced some technical problems with the set, so although the press night was supposed to be that very day (the Thursday), press night had actually been put back to Monday.

When Janie and I got to the Hampstead on the Friday, I asked the front of house staff whether the technical problems had been resolved for this evening. Two of them exchanged glances and one said, “we’ll find out”!

Well, the coup de théâtre that had (very understandably) had some teething problems came off with aplomb. But it would be a shame if this play and production is remembered only for that.

The play is basically about a character, based on Edward Snowden, disoriented in a “hotel room” in Russia. The dialogue is fast paced and whizzes around a myriad of big, important issues like a maelstrom.

In short, we loved it.

Here’s a link to the Hampstead’s area on this production, which provides plenty of detail, including (we subsequently learn) headlines and extracts from the excellent reviews this play/production deservedly received.

Coincidentally, I ran into Vince Leigh again the morning after the referendum result, this time on the street in Notting Hill Gate. He asked me how we found Wild. I told him and we agreed how good it was. Vince and I then also agreed what a strange day it was, everyone we had spoken to wandering around in a zombie-like state, trying not to cry about the result. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but our disorientation had something in common with that of the Snowden-like character. It felt like several of our walls had come down.

 

 

Lawrence After Arabia by Howard Brenton, Hampstead Theatre, 21 May 2016

Feisal_I_of_Iraq
It has been said that his majesty and I bear some slight resemblance… https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Feisal_I_of_Iraq.jpg

Oh dear.

It sounded like a good idea when we booked it. Such an interesting period of Middle-Eastern history. Howard Brenton, who did such an interesting job on Ai Weiwei, taking on an interesting character in T. E. Lawrence. Timely, as it is the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement this year…

The problem is, that period was also a period when English theatre was in its dull Edwardian through 1920s drawing room drama doldrums. Howard Brenton seems to think it a good idea to parody the very worst of that period’s drama for this play. Director John Dove takes the idea further with a staid, static style to the piece. There are some good actors in this play but frankly we couldn’t care less what happened to any of the characters, which doesn’t give the cast much room for manoevre.

Neither Janie nor I could tell you too much detail about the first half; we both slept through much of it. It was a deathly dull hour, even when sleep spares you much of it. It would have been a deathly dull two hours, but we agreed to cut our losses and leave at the interval. So we can’t tell you anything about the second half. I am reliably informed by Grant (someone I know from the gym who did suffer the whole thing) that it gets no better in the second half.

The Hampstead Theatre area for this play has lots of good reviews – here , so it has clearly received good reviews, not least in both of the Telegraphs. The audience certainly looked like they had all been bussed in from Telegraph reader central casting. However:

Congratulations to all of you critics for managing to stay awake sufficiently to review the piece, or alternatively for covering up your lack of wakefulness deftly in your columns.

I did wake up for the bit where Lawrence shows off the thawb, bisht and igal, the garments of a bedouin leader, gifted to him by Prince (later King) Faisal. I liked that bit. Firstly, I am said by some to resemble Faisal (see picture above); I certainly resemble him far more than the actor who plays him in this play.

Secondly I have a fine collection of natty thawbs, bestowed upon me by one of Janie’s wealthy Saudi clients. Indeed I do much of my writing at the flat wearing a thawb; especially in the summer when it is a very sensible way to dress when writing.

But I digress. The play is deathly dull. Did I mention that before? Is irritating when people waste your time simply repeating stuff they have said before? Or is it a quirky, whimsical touch, that could maintain your interest and tickle your sense of humour for a couple of hours.

On a positive note, the programme is a really interesting read. We highly recommend it. The programme is well worth the trip to Swiss Cottage and its £3.50 cover price. Just don’t waste your time and money on this turkey of a play.

Reasons To Be Happy by Neil Labute, Hampstead Theatre, 8 April 2016

We were really looking forward to this one. We have been fans of Neil Labute’s writing since he first burst onto the theatre scene in London with Bash, all those years ago. We saw Reasons to be Pretty at the Almeida some five years ago and thought it was a very good play and production.

This one, Reasons to be Happy, is a companion piece/sequel with the same characters. Michael Attenborough, now no longer at the Almeida, directing as a guest at the Hampstead. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the problem with this one is the play. Labute has, for once, written a dull, ordinary play. There are some really sharp dialogue exchanges, as you might expect, but the plot is from “Rom Com Writing 101” and even some of the dialogue drags. The menace that usually underscores a Neil Labute play was there, sort-of, but was more like muzzled poodle menace than the usual unfettered pitbull menace.

In fact, some of the script was so predictably ordinary, I wondered whether Neil Labute has programmed an artificial intelligence version of himself to keep his writing going while he does other things, like crossing the Finchley Road and getting spotted by Ged and Daisy. If so, he hasn’t programmed the machine all that well.

I was well rested, after denying myself a punishing night after the Middlesex AGM Thursday, so I stayed awake throughout, just about. Daisy was not so well rested and had experienced a trying morning of slavery at the hands of her increasingly unreasonably demanding mother. Thus Daisy took full advantage of the opportunity to catch up on her sleep during the play. She didn’t miss much, although she was understandably slightly confused about the outcome at the end of the show.

But she didn’t really care about that outcome. Nor did I.

It’s a shame, because the cast were good, doing their best to get something out of the dull script. The set was interesting enough. Michael Attenborough sure can direct, but you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, Hampstead Theatre, 30 January 2016

We go to the Hampstead Theatre to see a preview of Rabbit Hole at the Hampstead – production details from the wonderful Hampstead website are here.

This was another sad evening at the theatre, making it four out of four for us in January 2016.  We are in the home of a couple a few months on from the tragic death of their infant son.  The ever-excellent Claire Skinner plays the grieving mother.  We also meet her husband, sister, mother and the young driver who ran over the child.  All roles were played very well indeed.  The multi-dimensional set (aren’t they all the rage these days?) was superb.

The piece won a Pulitzer when first produced and was made into a film in 2010 with Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckert and Diane Wiest.  Neither of us have seen the film.

Presumably it has never been performed as a play in the UK.  Edward Hall likes to seek out such lost gems and he might be on to a winner with this one (it has almost sold out its run in advance), although the relentlessly sad thread that runs throughout the play might mitigate against a West End transfer.

Ed Hall himself was in the audience our night.  As indeed were John and Linda – a couple we regularly see at the theatre although we unusually hadn’t seen them for a while before tonight.  It was nice to chat with them again during the interval.

Originally we were supposed to get Alison Steadman as the mother but she pulled out a couple of months ago and we had been told to expect Penny Downie instead. We think of her as Queen Zenobia, but we are reliably informed that she is officially now “Penny Downie of Downton Abbey”.  In any case she played her irritating yet ultimately sympathetic role very well.  I could imagine Alison Steadman doing it too.

Real reviews to follow – presumably the Hampstead link – here it is again will be updated with the more favourable of those.

Stevie by Hugh Whitemore, Hampstead Theatre, 6 March 2015

We rather liked this one. Not as much as the critics, who mostly lapped it up, but we did enjoy the play.

It’s about the poet Stevie Smith and of course Zoë Wannamaker is a superb actress; indeed all three of the cast were.

It’s a bit twee; both the setting (but then Stevie Smith did live a twee suburban life in Palmers Green) and also the play, which is a little old-fashioned in style. It reminded me of the sort of play that did well in the Hampstead Theatre’s portacabin glory days, back in the eighties and nineties.

Excellent Hampstead on-line resource saves me most of the trouble – click here – reviews too but of course only those effusive ones.

I think we were still going to Harry Morgan pre-theatre back then; the Friday evening Hampstead theatre gig worked that way most times.

Amongst Friends by April De Angelis, Hampstead Theatre, 30 May 2009

We were more than a little disappointed with this one.

We’d fallen out of love with the Hampstead Theatre during this Anthony Clark era, so hadn’t been going there as much. But this cast looked terrific and the play sounded interesting…promising more than it delivered.

Here is the OfficialLondonTheatre.co.uk stub on the play/production.

What a difference once the Ed Hall era started.

Anyway I’m sure we enjoyed our dinner at Harry Morgan’s before the show.