Cell Mates by Simon Gray, Hampstead Theatre, 9 December 2017

There were warning signs that this production of this play might provoke thoughts of walking out part-way through and even take me and Janie to the very edge of reason…

…I had simply forgotten about them and/or ignored them.

We didn’t book the original production of the play, Cell Mates, but we read all about it when Stephen Fry walked out on the production after just a few days and disappeared – the controversy about that is well documented on the Wikipedia entry for the play – here.

Further, two of the lead performers for this production, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Cara Horgan, were in The Pains Of Youth – Ogblogged here – which Janie and I hated and from which we walked at half time.

But these reflections are terribly unfair on those fine actors, whose performances were the saving grace of this production of Cell Mates. Our problem with Cell Mates, I think, is mostly the play itself.

The story of George Blake and Sean Bourke is very interesting. I can see why Simon Gray sought to dramatise it. Yet sometimes great stories do not make great drama; or perhaps this story would have needed more dramatic licence to bring the story to dramatic life. Blake’s passion for Marxism and the Soviet Union, to the exclusion of his human relationships, is a fascinating idea but made for dreary drama to our eyes.

To us, this play was a waste of excellent talent; all of the cast are fine performers and played their parts well. Edward Hall is a director we greatly admire. We considered walking at half time, but stuck it out on the strength of the performances.

Anyway, here is the Hampstead Theatre resource on the play/production. 

Here is Ed Hall talking about the production:

Here is the trailer:

Here is a search term that will take you to reviews and stuff – the critics seem to be seeing a bit more in the play/production than we did…but only a bit.

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.

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.

Sunny Afternoon by Joe Penhall & Ray Davies, Hampstead Theatre, 25 April 2014

We loved this show.

Not the sort of thing we’d normally go for; we don’t really do musicals and certainly not juke box musicals.

But we’re both very fond of the Kinks, and of the Hampstead Theatre. We also trust Joe Penhall as a playwright.

Good call – this show was so enjoyable and we sensed that the Hampstead had a hit on its hands…

…which it did.

Well written, well acted & directed, superb musical performances…

…great fun too. By the end, it was more or less like being at an exciting gig. We ate at Harry Morgan before the show.

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

Here is a YouTube “behind the scenes”/trailer:

Here is a link to a search term which should find you plenty of reviews. They were mostly rave reviews; deservedly.



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.

Berlin by David Hare, Lyttelton Theatre, 9 March 2009

This was a rehearsed reading by David Hare, which was only performed for a few nights at The Lyttelton.

The only day we could go to Berlin was the Monday; it’s 18:00 start time encouraged us to take a day off that Monday in fact.

Berlin is basically a short (less than one hour) highly personal monologue about the city, its history and in particular the Berlin Wall.

Kate Kellaway wrote it up in the Observer thus.

It is a companion piece for the Wall, which we went to see a few days later at the Royal Court. I think I preferred Berlin, finding it more interesting and less preachy.

Writing this up in May 2017, I realise that Trump should be made to sit through both pieces.

The Designated Mourner, Wallace Shawn, Cottesloe Theatre, 1 June 1996

What an amazing piece of theatre this was.  The late great Mike Nichols, better known as a director of course, acted brilliantly, with Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser, all wonderful.

David Hare, better known as a playwright but also a talented director, did a grand job with the piece.

Wallace Shawn, perhaps better known as an actor than as a playwright, although also a very talented playwright, wrote it.  Not his best known; indeed possibly not his best piece, but, an excellent play.

Despite all that role rotation, it came off superbly well for us.

Janie and I recognised the unmistakable back of Wallace Shawn’s head just in front of us that night.  A few years later, we chatted with Wallace Shawn at the Almeida when he turned up to see Miranda Richardson in Aunt Dan and Lemon; he waxed lyrical about how wonderful he thinks she is, seemed genuinely self-effacing about his writing and genuinely delighted that we had been inspired to seek out his plays by seeing this piece and of course My Dinner With Andre, one of my favourite films ever.

Wikipedia explains the plot – click here.

Bit early in the life of the web for on-line reviews, but I found this rather informative thing – click here.