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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, Almeida Theatre, 22 January 2011

Janie and I both really enjoyed this play and production. It is an American comedy about disastrous blind dating, with enough issues in it to keep it interesting as well as amusing.

Superbly acted and beautifully directed and produced.

Here is a link to the Almeida resource on the play/production.

Here is the trailer:

Here is a link to a search term that should bring up reviews and other resources on this play/production. The reviews are a bit mixed – everyone seems to praise the production but not all of the reviewers liked the play as much as we did.