Albion by Mike Bartlett, Almeida Theatre, 27 October 2017

As  usual for the Almeida, we booked this as soon as it was announced because it sounded very interesting and we normally enjoy the Almeida stuff.

We normally go to a Saturday preview or an early Saturday in the run; this time we couldn’t do those dates, so chose a Friday two or three weeks into the run.

The play/production has had universally good reviews, which sounded like good news, but in truth this play did not really do the business for us. A shame, because the cast were superb, seemed very much a team, the design was stunning and there were some excellent coups de theatre and some very good lines. But the play just didn’t work for us.

To us, the garden was a rather clunky metaphor for that section of the English elite that hankers back to bygone glorious times.  A dramatist’s reaction to David Goodhart’s The Road To Somewhere.  The plot, limited though it was, contained one or two rather predictable twists that were well-signalled in advance and very clumsily explained in arrears.

As King Charles III is Mike Bartlett’s Shakespeare pastiche play, Albion is his Chekhov pastiche. Janie liked neither; I had more time for the Shakespearean style of the King Charles III one (to be Ogblogged in the fullness of time).

We’re not averse to Mike Bartlett – we loved Game and we loved Wild. Bartlett can have such an original voice, I’m not sure why he falls back on pastiche. Janie points out that his pastiche ones seem to be way more successful with critics and the transfer market than the more original ones.

“Most of the theatre audience is naff,” says Janie, with her trademark subtlety and tact.

In truth, the Almeida audience the night we saw Albion was dreadful and irritated us. Older on average than the Saturday night crowd, they seemed especially and unnecessarily elbows-out pushy at the bar and in the queues for tickets/entry. Janie was especially irritated by the woman sitting next to her who took off her shoes and then held us up for five minutes at the start of the interval trying to put her shoes back on her ever so smelly feet.

I had spent an hour before the show saying goodbye (workwise) to Ian Theodoreson at his leaving drinks in The Barley Mow. A shorter play would have probably suited me better on the night. But we have both turned up to theatre after longer, harder days than this; in truth this play/production just wasn’t to my/our taste.

Here is a link to the Almeida information hub on Albion – including links to those rave reviews.

Ink by James Graham, Almeida Theatre, 17 June 2017

Bloomin’ ‘eck this was good.

This was the first preview of Ink – so if you are reading this within 10 days or so of the above date, you still won’t be able to see formal reviews but you might still be able to get tickets. Get them before it’s too late!

Brilliant production, incredibly pacey, wonderfully designed, superbly acted – we were gripped from start to finish – for more than three hours – despite the heat and the exhaustion therefrom.

Here is a link to The Almeida’s resource on Ink.

Ink starts with Rupert Murdoch buying a maligned, failing broadsheet paper, The Sun, from IPC (which was in effect The Mirror Group then) and persuading Larry Lamb to edit The Sun for him and help Murdoch beat the Mirror at their own game.

The rest is history and the history of that first year of Murdoch ownership pans out relentlessly on the stage.

The first half was especially pacey, taking us through the early days of the Murdoch era, not least the tension of the tabloid launch in November 1969.

The second half goes deeper and at times darker; the Muriel McKay kidnap/murder and the start of the Page 3 era being covered in a great deal of detail.

I had a strangely good feeling about this play/production despite its provenance. We didn’t much like the preview we saw of This House by James Graham a few years ago – indeed we left in the interval – but I sensed that his writing style would please us in this Fleet Street context far more than it did in the Westminster setting.

Biographical/history plays of this kind have a fundamental problem of course; we know how the story and even the main sub-plots end, so the drama, tension and thought-provocation has to come from elsewhere. James Graham is becoming a master at doing this. His style is different from Peter Morgan’s (Frost/Nixon etc.), but I think we are now blessed with two British writers who are world class at this genre.

Being hyper-critical, I think James Graham is probably a little too kind on Rupert Murdoch and a little too harsh on Larry Lamb. The inference in several scenes is that Lamb was going further than Murdoch wanted him to go, but to my mind it is a classic media proprietor’s trick (and certainly an archetypal Murdoch one) to hire street-fighters to do their work and then seemingly recoil in genteel horror when the street-fighter fights.

James Graham might have shown up the hypocrisy in Murdoch’s position more, but I suspect Graham deliberately chose not to. Murdoch is still alive and hugely influential whereas Larry Lamb and the other main protagonists are gone.

But these are minor points; the story is wonderfully portrayed and I hope the play and this production do extremely well; they deserve to do so.

I might spoil the fun if I reveal the clever effects and coups de theatre that come thick and fast in this production, but I will share a couple.

In one of the scenes illustrating the then ground-breaking marketing and advertising campaigns run by The Sun, the actors threw fistfuls of “money” into the air, much of which landed at the front of the stage but some came tumbling into the audience; in our front row seats I scored a crisp (albeit false) Ayrton on my lap:

A welcome breach of the fourth wall.

Not that the front row was all good news for me and Janie. In one scene, in which Larry Lamb angrily beats out a printing plate himself, because none of the unionised workers will touch the story, Janie and I got showered with…

…ink? Whatever it is, it went all over our clothes.

I called the Almeida on the Monday to ask them what the substance might be and how best we might wash our clothes. Strangely, it was one of the actors who answered the phone; he seemed especially concerned that they try to avoid breaching the fourth wall that way in future performances. Fair point.

But the actor also kindly called me back a few minutes later, after speaking with stage management and wardrobe, to say that they were very cagey indeed about revealing what the actual substance is, but they did give him some washing instructions to pass on to me. The instructions started, “firstly, put on Cat 3 asbestos-hooded coveralls…”  I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

I suppose those two breaches of the fourth wall combine well in an expression that the quintessential Yorkshireman, Larry Lamb, would often have used:

where there’s muck there’s brass.

The Treatment by Martin Crimp, Almeida Theatre, 27 May 2017

By the time we got to our seats, Janie and I had probably had enough suspense, drama, excitement and surprise for one day.

We’d been following the ODI cricket all day, which was well poised when we left Noddyland, in good time to get to The Almeida.

Noddyland/well poised

In fact the traffic was very light, enabling us to take an unusually direct route, but that didn’t stop the cricket from taking more twists and turns than a Sat Nav assisted London journey in a traffic jam.

Janie was convinced England were going to win throughout the Saffer chase; whereas I was less optimistic in the absence of early wickets for England on a very flat track. But between the time we drove past Madam Tussaud’s to the time we drove past the Wellcome Collection, the Saffers reduced the ask from 26 runs off 13 balls to 10 runs off 10 balls. Even Janie briefly thought England were as stuffed as…well, waxworks aren’t technically stuffed, but some specimens in the Wellcome Collection must be.

The worst part about listening to the end of that cricket match in the car was waiting to turn from White Lion Street onto Islington High Street, when the Saffers needed just four runs off the last two balls. The radio signal hit one of those building-affected interference spots and we couldn’t hear a thing for about a minute – which felt like an hour. As we emerged onto the High Street, we soon learnt that we hadn’t missed a ball; merely a lot of faffing around in the field. Phew.

So the match was won – scorecard here – just as we arrived at the Almeida. Double-phew. We sat in the car a while to decompress and hear the post-match punditry.

The Almeida was heaving by the time we entered, a little after 19:00. We collected our tickets, bought a programme, ordered our drinks and found a quieter spot in the corner of the bar. Janie wanted to read the two or three sentence promotional teaser for the play, which was absent from the programme but is the information that enticed us to book the play. I volunteered to get her the little promo card, via the loo.

As I weaved through the heaving foyer/bar area, at one point a fellow, with his back to me, was standing in a particularly obstructive place, making it impossible for me to get past. I tapped him gently on the shoulder and said, “excuse me, may I please get past you?”, to which he replied, without turning around, “NO. You can go all the way around the other side instead.”

Then the unhelpful gentleman turned around.

It was Ollie Goodwin. An old mate from school…or should I say an old high school bud? It must be fully four days since we last met. Ollie had seen me coming.

Janie had met Ollie and indeed Ollie’s other half, Victoria, a few months ago at Chris Grant’s alumni do, so we needed little reintroduction, chatting briefly before the play and then again at some more length about the play during the interval and after the show.

It is one of those plays that gives you plenty to chat about.

The Almeida website has a superb resource on each production these days, with production information, pictures, descriptions and links to the reviews, so no point me replicating that sort of stuff – click here for The Almeida resource on the Treatment.

The Treatment has had superb reviews (as evidenced in the above Almeida resource), but one of Janie’s clients had absolutely hated this play, describing it as “rubbish”, so we went with a little trepidation. That particular client/lady often has taste that corresponds with ours. But on this occasion Janie’s client got it wrong; I can see how the play (indeed Martin Crimp’s writing generally) wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is very interesting and far from rubbish.

Martin Crimp’s plays are (in our experience) always sinister and weird. The Treatment (which Crimp wrote and was first performed in 1993) echoes some of the themes Crimp also covered in The City – which we saw at the Royal Court in 2008 and which I Ogblogged here. In particular the crazy, suspenseful nature of cities. Menace that is partly overt, partly covert; some only in our minds, some all too real.

Coincidentally, Benedict Cumberbatch was in the audience with us, sitting very close to or even next to Ollie and Victoria. As a young, up-and-coming, virtually unknown but clearly very talented actor, Cumberbatch starred in that production of The City (and indeed Martin Crimp’s version of Rhinoceros at The Royal Court – Ogblogged here). I think we first saw Cumberbatch at the Almeida as it happens, as Tesman in a superb production of Hedda Gabler in 2005.

Benedict Cumberbatch also plonked himself at the next table to ours during the interval, much to the complete nonchalance of Janie, Ollie and Victoria…until I pointed him out to them.

Actually, these days Benedict Cumberbatch is everywhere and in everything, so on that basis this encounter was hardly a coincidence. Indeed, given the size of the cast used in The Treatment it’s a miracle that Cumberbatch wasn’t in the play rather than merely watching it. Stranger still that Janie and I didn’t see him eating at Ranoush in Kensington later in the evening. Absolutely everywhere, he is.

Back to The Treatment. You can read many good reviews, mostly four star, linked in full at the Almeida resource – here. But the reviews are not universally great; Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph is not so sure about the play.

I also wondered what the American critics might think of it; Marianka Swain in Broadway World was pretty impressed.

Janie and I will find ourselves talking about this play for some while, I’m sure; certainly for the rest of the weekend…and this is a long weekend. That’s the sign of a good play to us. We also thought it was a superb production, with excellent performances and very innovative stage direction/set design.

Medea by Euripedes, a new version by Rachel Cusk, Almeida Theatre, 26 September 2015

This was a very powerful modern adaptation of Medea, wonderfully acted, directed and produced.

Kate Fleetwood was superb as the increasingly crazed Medea; so was Justin Salinger as the creepy, unreasonable Jason.

Of course, this was a modern adaptation, so it doesn’t quite end as the bloody original, but it does naturally end in tears.

Both of us were really struck by the power of this production; Janie has a natural aversion to ancient works but this modern adaptation did enough to keep her engrossed.

As always these days, an excellent Almeida stub with all the details and resources you might want if you want to know more, including links to pretty much all the reviews as it was universally heaped with praise – click here.

So I need say no more.

Birdland by Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre, 12 April 2014

Janie and I both tend to like Simon Stephens plays, so there was little debate about booking an early sighting of this one at the Royal Court.

We enjoyed our evening, but neither of us could honestly say that this was one of Simon Stephen’s best or most memorable plays.

The play is about a rock star at the end of a long tour. The issues covered, while done well, seemed superficial compared with most of Simon Stephens’s plays. The dialogue glistened, but then what do you expect?

Here is a link to the (for some unknown reason) rather limited Royal Court resource on the play/production.

This search term – click here – will find you plenty of the (frankly, mixed) reviews.

Below is the video trailer:

Red by John Logan, Donmar Warehouse, 5 December 2009

The more cynical reader/theatre lover might imagine this play/production having been designed for a Broadway transfer from the outset.

A two-handed, short play about the artist Mark Rothko, with an all (both) star cast and Michael Grandage directing.

Indeed, had it not been for the fact that the subject matter interests us both and that the stars in question (Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne) are both stars we like, we might have given this one a miss. We were falling out of love with the Donmar Warehouse by then.

But this was a very interesting play and it was superbly done, so we are very glad we went to see it at the very start of its transatlantic journey.

No on-line resource from the Donmar – they are far too busy arranging West End and Broadway transfers for that.

It got mostly very good reviews, but not universally so:

It did well on transatlantic transfer too – here is Ben Brantley from the New York Times the following spring.

But back to London during chilly December 2009, Janie and I were really taken with the preview we saw, which is the bit that really matters. It has also made us look at Rothko works slightly differently since. We’re still not sure about their meditative qualities though.

Finally, here is an extracts package from Playbill from the Los Angeles transfer – sadly without Eddie Redmayne by then, but still you get to see Alfred Molina as Rothko:

 

 

The Priory by Michael Wynne, Royal Court Theatre, 28 November 2009

I recall this one as being a bit Alan Aykbournish – a gang of thirty-somethings on retreat in the country for New Years eve. What could possibly go wrong?

A slight set of Royal Court details and links about this play/production can be found here.

We quite enjoyed it, while agreeing that we normally seek plays with a bit more oomph and have seen a lot of plays a bit like this one in our time.

Of course it was well acted and well produced – the Royal Court hardly ever misses one of those beats.

Mrs Klein by Nicholas Wright, Almeida Theatre, 24 October 2009

We both really enjoyed this play/production about he psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

I had seen the original production of this play at The Cottesloe back in 1988 and really liked it.

Janie and I are keen Almeida-istas;  I guessed that this would be yet another really good Almeida production and that the play would be to Janie’s taste. Add to that a superb cast – Clare Higgins and Nicola Walker are two of our favourites, plus Thea Sharrock (formerly at The Gate) directing…

…what could go wrong? Nothing. This was a great production and Janie did really like it.

As usual, there is an excellent Almeida resource about the play/production – click here – with information, pictures and reviews.

The reviews were nearly all very good and the very good ones are accessible in full from the above resource.

Judgment Day by Ödön Von Horváth, in a new version by Christopher Hampton, Almeida Theatre, 10 October 2009

We love the Almeida Theatre, despite the extra shlep involved in getting there from West London. At the time of writing (29 May 2017) we have just been again.

One really excellent thing about the Almeida is the quality of on-line resource they put up for the productions, with lots of information about the play, the creatives involved in the production, plenty of pictures and links to many reviews (the favourable ones of course).

Here is the Almeida’s on-line resource for Judgment Day.

The other really excellent thing about the Almeida is the quality of stuff it puts on. This play/production was no exception.

Ödön Von Horváth (imagine answering the “how do you spell it?” question with that name) has long fascinated Christopher Hampton. This seemingly small canvas German play, about the moral consequences of covering up the true reason for a deadly train crash, is in reality a pre-war allegory with the wilful blindness that led to Nazi power.

It was an especially good evening in the theatre; Janie and I both remember it fondly well. I also recently (when we saw The Ferryman) remembered that we had seen the excellent Laura Donnelly before, but didn’t at the time connect it with this play/production.

Most of the reviews – eight to ten of them included in the Almeida resource link above and here – are very good, but:

We thought it was top notch.

The Observer by Matt Charman, Cottesloe Theatre, 6 June 2009

After a rare Friday night marathon with Wally Shawn at the Royal Court the evening before, we went to the Cottesloe the next night to see another affecting play.

Here is the OfficialLondonTheatre.com stub for The Observer.

It is basically about election observers in a West African country getting its first taste of democracy.

We found it interesting and thought provoking. We were a bit “theatred out” by the end of it, but that was as much Wally Shawn’s fault from the night before as anything else. I’ll guess we went to May’s (Shanghai Knightsbridge) for some Chinese food after this one. We had many issues from the two evenings to chat about over dinner and the rest of the weekend.