The Firm by Roy Williams, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 4 November 2010

We usually really like Roy Williams’s plays – in particular we loved Fallout, Clubland and Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, but the last couple of times we haven’t been so impressed.

They are always a bit laddish; this piece especially so.

Janie really didn’t like it at all and let the extent of her uninterest show, in the form of nodding off to sleep a few times.

I simply felt that it was lesser Roy Williams but still enjoyed the piercing wit in some of the bants and the way Williams gets the mood in potentially tense situations to change with great rapidity and skill.

For example, I thought the scene in which Selwyn “loses it” and Trent helps him to calm down was very well done.

But in the end, it did all feel like more of the same from Roy Williams and I’m sure that he is potentially better than this as a playwright. We’ll probably think at least twice before booking his next one. Or I might see it on my own.

A light supper of avocado and prawns when we got home; Daisy’s good mood was easily restored with that and a nice glass of white wine.

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.

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.

Ken by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 23 April 2016

I had been looking forward to this one since we booked it. I am a big fan of the late Ken Campbell, an interest going back to the 1990s. I/we saw several of his shows. Soon after he died, in 2008, we went to see a tribute to him at the Royal Court. Etc.

This piece sounded interesting, written and performed by Terry Johnson, who worked with Ken Campbell when he (Terry) was very young. Terry’s material tends to be much more structured than Ken Campbell’s stuff, but there’s usually a suggestion of that Campbellian anarchy in Terry Johnson’s writing. In short, the piece promised to be a bit different. It was.

From the moment you walked in to the theatre downstairs, now littered with comfy sofas, armchairs, suspended egg chairs and the like, you knew it was different.

“Come and sit at the front – there’s no audience participation,” entreated the ushers. Up to a point, they were telling the truth. But beyond that point things could take a strange turn.

Actually it had been a slightly strange afternoon for me. The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I felt motivated by some incoming correspondence to put something up on Facebook about “me and the Bard”, which got quite a few friends going. If physiognomy were all it is cracked up to be, I’d have quite a few hit plays in the west end right now. But enough about me.

Ken is a short piece of some 80 minutes without an interval. The main part of the piece is about Terry Johnson’s youthful involvement in Ken Campbell’s bold The Warp project in 1979; in particular the infamous “squat transfer” to Edinburgh for the festival that year. More than half the piece is about that. The remainder picks up on Terry Johnson’s subsequent involvement with Ken. The ill-fated stage version of Hitchhiker’s Guide at the Rainbow Theatre in 1980, plus a few later overlappings.

Jeremy Stockwell does a magnificent turn as Ken Campbell (and a few other seriously good impersonations too; Stockwell’s Trevor Nunn body language is great). Terry Johnson does a reasonably good turn as himself; but I suspect that Jeremy Stockwell might have been able to do Terry Johnson better than Terry Johnson. Jeremy Stockwell in particular moves among the audience a lot, making unnerving eye contact at times.

Some of the crazy stories we’ve heard several times before, although I never tire of the “Royal Dickens Company” practical joke on Trevor Nunn, for example. Actually, it was the crazy material about The Warp that held the most interest for me; partly because that project was clearly such an anarchic, enormous overstretch, partly because I hadn’t heard the detail about that crazy production before.

Daisy didn’t enjoy the show as much as I did, but she did enjoy the show. You can sense that Terry Johnson feels that his time and relationship with Ken Campbell was hugely formative for him, so deep affection as well as the desire to tell the crazy stories pervades the script and the production.

At the end of the show, Jeremy Stockwell, still in character as Ken, together with a slightly timid young woman in a diaphanous wrap which left precious little to the imagination, invite the audience to join them backstage in a re-enactment of the nude body painting scene from The Warp.

“If you are curious, you come through this door, to my left, take off all your clothes and join in the body painting scene. If you want to go straight home, you go out the way you came through the door to my right,” said Ken/Jeremy.

“You may keep your undies on if you wish,” added the diaphanous young woman, almost apologetically.

I shall now draw a veil over the proceedings; a far more opaque veil than that of the diaphanous young lady’s wrap. So it is up to your imagination, dear reader, to wonder what Daisy and I chose to do in these circumstances. The curious door to the left, or the safety of the exit door to the right?

To borrow from that ghastly Las Vegas adage: what happens in The Hampstead, stays in The Hampstead.

 

 

 

 

Firebird by Phil Davies, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2 October 2015

This was a very harrowing short piece, brilliantly done. Deservedly, this one got a transfer to Trafalgar Studios, so there is a good stub to be found with the production details, some interviews etc. We saw the original version at the Hampstead Downstairs, but it looks as though it was a straight transfer, same cast, same production team.

The play is basically about a young girl in Rochdale who is befriended and groomed by an older, Asian man with debts and bad friends. The Children’s Society collaborated on the work, by all accounts.

We saw it on a Friday evening after a poor early evening meal at Harry Morgans. We were talking about it all weekend; it raised such startling issues and was so well acted.

There were also reviews post transfer:

Many more reviews can be found if you google for them using Trafalgar rather than Hampstead.

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.

The Mystae by Nick Whitby, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 21 February 2014

I’ve written down 9.00 beside this one, so I think it was a short play that they ran twice an evening.

Looks as though we ate beforehand (Harry’s I’d suggest) and I vaguely remember us both wondering why we’d taken on a late gig on a Friday evening.

But I also recall it was a very lively play that held our attention throughout.

One of those coming of age/rite of passage plays, but very well done.

Here is a link to the Hampstead resource on this production.

Here is a link to other stuff you might find (no formal reviews downstairs of course).

Below is the explanatory vid with director Tim Carroll:

Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, Hampstead Theatre, 17 January 2014

It seemed like only a week since we last went to Harry’s and then The Hampstead…

…but this one did less for us.

I seem to recall finding the whole evening a bit irritating and we really didn’t like this play.

It’s had great reviews so don’t take our word for it.

Emilia Fox doesn’t do much for us and the play seemed very laboured and obvious in places.

The Hampstead resource on the play/production can be found here.

This search term will find you the reviews.

Rope by Patrick Hamilton, Almeida Theatre, 19 December 2009

We weren’t as keen on this one as we had hoped to be, given the synopsis and the fact that the Almeida was going through a purple patch at that time.

I’m not sure that Patrick Hamilton works for us on the stage – indeed we have recently at the time of writing (May 2017) passed up an opportunity to see one of his in the forthcoming Hampstead Theatre run.

We’re becoming an increasingly picky pair these days. We tend to avoid booking much in that pre-Christmas period also, now, given the nightmare journeys that often ensue at that time of year.

Anyway, here is the Almeida on-line resource about the play and production, which includes information, review links, photos and even a vid from the rehearsals.

It was of course an excellent production and very well acted. I think it was the play that didn’t quite do it for us. Janie and I like 1920’s and 1930’s styles generally, but strangely we don’t tend to like plays/the theatrical style of that era.

The reviews – mostly very good but not great – are mostly linked from the Almeida resource – here’s that link again.

For some reason British Theatre Guide doesn’t usually make it to those links – Philip Fisher makes good points in this review, not least that the play is quite long compared with the much vaunted Hitchcock film version.

Skimming the reviews reminds me how very well acted and produced the piece was, it just wasn’t really our type of piece.

Still, we’re both glad we caught this production; I have little doubt that this production is as good as it gets for Rope.

The Power Of Yes by David Hare, Lyttelton Theatre, 17 October 2009

We were not overly impressed with this play.

David Hare is very good at burrowing around all manner of interesting topics, but I suspect he was too far away from his spheres of knowledge and understanding with the financial crisis.

Hare almost admits as much, as the narrator of the play is a somewhat perplexed author.

So to me, Hare was making the obvious points about the financial crisis well enough, but there was little dramatic tension and no new insight in the piece.

Janie liked it a bit more than i did, but I suspect that she got more out of it, being less steeped in the financial crisis in the first place.

I’m glad we saw it, but this is second division work from a first division playwright. There was little a good cast and production could do to save it.