Promises, Promises

Southwark Playhouse is known for its musicals, and Promises, Promises, with music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David and a book by Neil Simon, is the latest production. The 1968 musical, based on the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment, is the story of CC Baxter (Chuck), a lowly office worker who realises he can win promotion by allowing senior executives at his company to use his apartment for their liaisons with young women. He manages to overlook the moral questions this raises, but has second thoughts when he realises that the woman his boss is seeing is Fran, the woman he himself loves.

The show has two main flaws. One is the length: at nearly three hours it is far too long considering the flimsiness of the storyline. It seemed quite slow in places and I’m sure it could have been cut. The other is the dated attitude which pervades the piece and seems particularly galling to a modern audience: women are frequently seen as possessions, and the response to a big event which occurs towards the end of the show – featuring the song ‘A Young Pretty Girl Like You’ – seems especially inappropriate. Having said that, the production (with effective, if wobbly, sets, and strong costumes) is set so firmly in its time that I found I could accept the old-fashioned attitudes in terms of the context of the period.

The strengths of Promises, Promises are the music and the cast. I can’t claim to be a Bacharach fan, but I enjoyed the score, particularly the Act II highlight ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’. Gabriel Vick is an appealing and charismatic leading man, charmingly relatable in his asides to the audience and possessed of a strong singing voice. As his love interest Fran, Daisy Maywood is easily his equal, and I adored her singing. John Guerrasio also does a good comic turn as the doctor who lives next door to Chuck.

Overall, Promises, Promises might not be the best thing to set the Southwark Playhouse’s stage alight, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

Saint Joan

As you enter the Donmar auditorium, Gemma Arterton as Joan of Arc is kneeling in the centre of the stage, praying to the God she is certain is on her side. Clad in armour and with a sword by her side, it’s the image of Joan that we are all familiar with.

George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play looks back to the medieval past but is obviously suited to the present: both his own early twentieth century present and our own current day. With the production being presented in modern dress, it’s easy to assume that it was written in our own time, especially as since Brexit the idea of being at war with France doesn’t seem quite as unlikely as perhaps it once did.

Into this modern setting of boardrooms and politics, entirely male, steps Joan, convinced that the voices of the saints have told her to make war upon the English and drive them from France. Those in power hardly know what to make of her; she seems to come from another world, particularly as she wears more medieval-style clothes than the rest of them. Something about her wholehearted conviction wins them over, and they send her troops; she wins several battles, but it isn’t too long before she is captured, and we all know what happens next.

I really like Gemma Arterton as an actress, and she didn’t disappoint here. She is entirely convincing as the passionate Joan, and the whole production seems to light up when she is on stage. The rest of the cast also do a great job, particularly Fisayo Akinade as the Dauphin and Jo Stone-Fewings as Warwick, but while I like Shaw he does have a tendency to go on a bit, and some of the scenes without Joan did drag.

Robert Jones’s set design is effective, with screens of financial news and BBC news reports changing, particularly when Joan is speaking, to medieval religious painting, as if emphasising both Joan’s own time and place and her essential timelessness, famous even today when her contemporaries are forgotten. The final scene reinforces this, with its church-like interior, scent of incense and Joan smiling into the dark. This is the image that will stay with me for a while.

The Thrill of Love

This relatively modern play by Amanda Whittington follows the later life and early death of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Convicted in 1955 for the murder of her lover, David Blakely, the play tries to examine why Ruth might have been led to take such a huge step.

Largely set in the nightclubs where Ruth worked, the play is narrated by the detective responsible for investigating her, but other than him every character in the play is female, with the focus on Ruth’s friends and colleagues. While I did enjoy seeing Ruth in terms of her interactions with fellow women, I also felt it would have been interesting to feature her lover, David, and show how her relationship with him deteriorated at first-hand.

The Thrill of Love is admirably performed by LADS at Lopping Hall. I very much enjoyed the performance, which left me with a lot to think about.

An Experiment With An Air Pump

This play by Shelagh Stephenson was performed by the Roan Theatre Company in South London. It was inspired by the painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, and moves between two time periods, 1799 and 1999, in the same house. In 1799, scientist Joseph Fenwick is performing experiments in a large household including his wife, two daughters and a particularly intelligent servant, while in 1999, scientist Ellen is faced with selling the house she loves unless she takes a lucrative job with controversial ethics. Then her husband finds a skeleton in the basement.

Plot-wise, An Experiment With An Air Pump is not unlike Kate Atkinson’s Abandonment (Stephenson’s play came first). It is gripping, intelligent and witty, with a genuine mystery to try and unravel. I enjoyed the play and the performances, and I’d definitely like to see more by this playwright in the future.

Wild Honey

Wild Honey, the 1984 version of Chekhov’s early play without a title by Michael Frayn, has been on my to-see list for a long time now, and I was frankly thrilled when I found out that it was going to be produced at the Hampstead Theatre. It was directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died towards the end of last year, and Jonathan Kent, fresh from the Young Chekhov trilogy.

The play comes hot on the heels of David Hare’s version which played at the National last year, but I detected a different tone in this version. Whereas last year’s Platonov, delivered as part of the Young Chekhov season, aimed to show the development of the youthful dramatist, Wild Honey is more of a polished play in its own right. For what it’s worth, I loved them both.

On the first day of summer in the Russian countryside, a group of old friends congregates at the home of Anna Petrovna, a young widow. Included in the party is Platonov, the schoolmaster, whose moralising and intellectual nature has led his peers to brand him as a philosopher. However, the arrival of a young woman he knew as a student in Moscow – now the wife of Anna Petrovna’s stepson – forces him to examine his life and reflect on the loss of his early promise.

There’s a particular moment when this woman, Sofya, looks at Platonov and asks, “Why haven’t you done better?” and you can see the pain in his eyes as he is forced to confront his own mediocrity. I think most people come to the same realisation at some point in their lives, but it’s incredible that Chekhov understood this when he was only barely out of his teens. Even as the play descends into wildly funny farce, with various women chasing Platonov around the forest, you get the sense that he is really using these love entanglements as a distraction from his real worries.

Indeed, the farcical nature of the play is perfect for adaptor Michael Frayn, whose own farce Noises Off is a classic of the genre. There is comedy, as Platonov tries to juggle his interactions with practically every character in the play. And yet, being Chekhov, tragedy is never far from the surface: both in the main character’s realisation of his own inconsequence, and in the ending, which deviates from the original but which is no less shocking for that.

The play is supported by a superb cast, led by Geoffrey Streatfeild, last seen playing Ivanov at the National, hits all the right notes as the infuriating yet sympathetic Platonov: completely believable as someone whom all the women around him would fall for, but nevertheless rude, selfish and deeply flawed.

Rob Howell’s wooden set evokes the spirit of nineteenth-century Russia, and there is a superb train effect that left a lasting impression on me. Hampstead has scored a hit here as far as I am concerned – a must-see for any Chekhov fan.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

The Southwark Playhouse’s family show for Christmas 2016 is Kiki’s Delivery Service, based on the novel by Eiko Kadono and adapted for the stage by Jessica Siân. The story was originally made famous by the Studio Ghibli film of the same name, which is where I first encountered it. I was curious to see how the story would translate to the stage, so I went along to the show during the last week of its run.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the tale of a young witch, Kiki, who has just turned thirteen and in the manner of her own mother, and other witches before her, must leave home and seek out a town without a witch in which to settle. Heading out into the world on her broomstick with her loyal familiar, the black cat Jiji, she finds a pleasant seaside town and starts up a delivery service, using her flying abilities to transport packages here and there. When she has an accident during one of her deliveries, largely because of her own silly behaviour, will she be able to redeem herself in the eyes of the town and make her first year as an independent witch a success?

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a hugely enjoyable tale for both children and adults, directed in a pacy, engaging and amusing way by Kate Hewitt. Eschewing fancy special effects, it uses clever lighting and set design (by Simon Bejer) to convey changes of scene, and fellow actors help Kiki to “fly”. Kiki herself is played by the likeable Alice Hewkin, while her cat Jiji is an adorable and characterful puppet (performed and voiced by Matthew Forbes). A talented supporting cast play a range of roles, transforming easily from one to the other: when they came out for their final bow, I couldn’t believe there were only six performers.

The play has a traditional message about working hard and never giving up, but it is never cloying or sentimental. A thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining show for the whole family.

Mary Stuart

As the audience quiets and the cast stand waiting on stage, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson approach from either side. After a dramatic pause, one calls heads or tails. A coin is spun in a dish, and falls to one side. The loser is imprisoned as Mary Stuart. The winner is bowed to as Elizabeth I.

It’s an appropriate beginning to a play about two queens whose fates could really turn on the spin of a coin, the chance of a minute. Elizabeth may be the one in power, but as Mary points out to her, the pair are the same in many ways. The two actresses present as identical, with short haircuts and simple suits: they look the same for most of the play, it’s only at the end that Elizabeth is clad in the imposing regalia she was famous for, while Mary is reduced to wearing a simple shift as she awaits her execution.

Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, based on the real-life drama of Queen Elizabeth and her imprisoned Catholic cousin the Queen of Scots, compresses the action into a couple of days and imagines a meeting between the two that in real life never took place, yet makes for some pretty good drama. Robert Icke’s new version is sharp and modern, and in conjunction with the modern dress of the production emphasises the twenty-first century relevance of the subject matter, with its religious conflict, political intrigue and references to refugees.

Performance-wise, the play is a masterclass in acting, with the added frisson of not knowing who is playing the main roles until the performance begins. If I’d known, I’d have booked a matinee and an evening performance – on two-performance days, the actors spin a coin for the matinee and swap roles for the evening – in order to see both actors in each role, but never mind. At the performance I saw, Juliet Stevenson played Mary and she was superb, alternately loving, angry and resentful, appealing and inspiring of great loyalty. Lia Williams if possible was even better as Elizabeth, strong, proud, politically astute and manipulative. The pair are supported by a strong cast, including an excellent John Light as Leicester and Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. All involved manage to capture the rhythm of Schiller’s language (well, the English translation of it, anyway).

Mary Stuart was the first show I saw in 2017 and I certainly hope it sets a precedent for the rest of the year: profound, clever and superbly acted, a triumph for the Almeida.