A Glimpse Of The Domesticity Of Franklin Barnabas

A Glimpse Of The Domesticity Of Franklin Barnabas was originally written in the early 1920s and intended to be part of Back to Methuselah, but it was never performed. It receives its premiere at the cosy Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead.

The short play is amusing and full of Shaw’s usual wit. One of the characters is a portrait of Shaw’s friend G.K. Chesterton, which adds another layer to proceedings. While it is a little too verbose at times, it is a humorous portrait of marriage and family life.

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Measure for Measure

I’ll be blunt: I nearly didn’t go to see Measure for Measure, Josie Rourke’s penultimate show before leaving the Donmar. I was tired and didn’t really fancy a three-hour Shakespeare. But I forced myself into the auditorium, and it was a good thing I did, because this was one of the most fascinating, daring, thought-provoking Shakespeares I’ve seen.

Rourke presents here two cut-down versions of the play, one set in its original year of performance in 1604, one in the modern day. Hayley Atwell and Jack Lowden, as Isabella and Angelo, alternate the roles of victim and predator in the two complimentary yet contrasting productions.

“Who will believe thee, Isabel?” In the modern age of #MeToo, and particularly given Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s recent revelations about would-be senator Brett Kavanaugh, Measure for Measure has never seemed so timely or modern. It explores the balance of power, its corrupting force, and it’s differing impact on men and women.

In the first play, following the more traditional route, Hayley Atwell is the novice who pleads with strict stand-in ruler Angelo for her brother’s life (Claudio has been condemned to death for fornication). He refuses, unless she agrees to give up her chastity to him. Thanks to a plot hatched by the watching Duke (a confident Nicholas Burns in both versions), Angelo’s former betrothed sleeps with him in Isabella’s stead, and Angelo is eventually brought to justice. The Duke, who has been observing all along, pulling strings behind the scenes like a master of manipulation, decides to claim Isabella as his own, at which point she lets out a glorious, angry scream.

The set goes dark; when the metaphorical curtain lifts a few minutes later the stage and its actors are transformed. They wear modern dress, and Atwell plays the official to whom the Duke is handing over power. Interestingly, Lowden and Atwell still play ‘Angelo’ and ‘Isabella’, each taking on the other character’s lines. It is as if this version of the play is a natural successor to the previous one, as though Isabella, angry at her treatment, wants to turn the tables on her accuser.

After the interval, the play runs through once again, and it’s fascinating to see how performances – and the audience’s reaction – change. Where Angelo in the first play seemed to rejoice in his new power, Isabella in this one seems surprised, nervous, almost reluctant – you get the sense that she has worked hard to get where she is and lacks the natural confidence possessed by the men surrounding her. Her abuse of power is just as reprehensible and her attempted seduction of Angelo (here a born-again Christian) just as wrong, but her punishment at the end of the play is far greater. In the first play Angelo was humbled; here Isabella is humiliated, as her night-time encounter with her former fiance in the guise of Angelo is replayed as a video forwarded to everyone in the room. In both plays, she is a woman in a man’s world; little wonder then that in the final scene, transformed back into Elizabethan costume, she resigns herself to the Duke’s will.

Naturally, the focus is on Atwell and Lowden, who are both excellent, but a number of the supporting characters are worth a mention. Sule Rimi as Claudio is a sheepish prisoner in the first play, but swaggers rebelliously in the second, unable to understand why his brother won’t just sleep with Isabella and save his life. Matt Bardock plays a memorable Lucio in both plays, while Adam McNamara is a constant, increasingly frustrated presence as the Provost. Peter McKintosh’s simple set works well as both a backdrop for the earlier setting, and a contemporary frame for the modern-day stage.

The more I think about this production – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I saw it – the more I admire and respect it. It has been extended to 1 December, and I definitely recommend trying to grab a ticket.

St Nicholas

I’m a sucker for anything limited or hard to get hold of, so I really wanted to succeed in the ballot for a ticket to St Nicholas – but I didn’t. This production, which takes place in the Donmar’s Dryden Street building, was originally only available in this way. However, later in the run the producers announced day tickets, and I was able to snap one up.

The play is written by Conor McPherson, who also wrote The Weir, a play that I loved when I saw it at the Donmar. It is the story of a cynical theatre critic whose encounter with vampires transforms him. In its mixture of the everyday and the supernatural it echoes The Weir, and brings a chill to the darkening autumn evenings, in part thanks to the production by Simon Evans and designer Peter McKintosh.

St Nicholas is performed by Brendan Coyle, who has the daunting task of holding an audience’s attention for the best part of two hours, and succeeds admirably. He takes some time to work up to the vampires, but this somehow doesn’t matter, as his performance is compelling from the start.

What does it all mean? It could all be an elaborate extended metaphor for the role of critic-as-vampire, feeding off the work of others. The protagonist himself is a kind of emotional vampire, demanding love and attention from those around him. Or it could just be a straightforward chilling supernatural tale. Either way, it’s a memorable one.

Questors Theatre: Theatre Tour (Open House London)

Questors Theatre

During Open House London I was particularly excited to tour the Questors Theatre, it being my local theatre in Ealing. The Questors was originally formed in 1929, and staged plays in various venues before ending up in a disused ‘tin’ church building.

In 1952, The Questors bought its current site on Mattock Lane, including Mattock Lodge, the 1851 villa which forms the front of the site. They put in place plans to build a new type of theatre, the first in the UK since before the Second World War, employing Norman Branson of W. S. Hattrell and Partners. A delegation from the Moscow Arts Theatre visited in 1958, dedicating the foundation stone in the Stanislavski Room (the Studio Theatre).

To keep costs down, much of the theatre was built by volunteers, which probably wouldn’t be allowed now! The main auditorium was a revolutionary design, allowing productions to be staged in thrust, proscenium and in the round. This style was later copied by the Chichester Festival Theatre among others. The Questors finally opened in 1964 with a production of Ibsen’s play Brand, attended by HRH Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

My tour started in the foyer, headed into the Studio Theatre and then backstage, exploring the costume store, set design areas, and taking a look at a few set design models. We went out onto the Playhouse stage and then upstairs to the lighting room.

I’ve seen quite a few productions in this theatre and I enjoyed the chance to take a look around backstage. I’m definitely looking forward to heading back – as an audience member this time!

Shaftesbury Theatre: Theatre Tour (Open House London)

The Shaftesbury Theatre

During Open House London I was lucky enough to get a ticket to explore Shaftesbury Theatre. This privately-owned theatre, currently home to Motown: The Musical, opened in 1911 under the name The Princes Theatre with a production of The Three Musketeers. Its initial owners were Walter and Frederick Melville, who also owned The Lyceum.

The auditorium

The Theatre was designed by Bertie Crewe, and decorated with tiling and elaborate paintwork, including statues representing Comedy, Tragedy, Poetry and Music. The repertoire broadened as the century wore on, with the theatre playing host to light operetta including works by Gilbert and Sullivan. It also saw star turns from the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Sybil Thorndike and Fred Astaire. During the Second World War the theatre remained open despite bomb damage, hosting the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet.

The auditorium

In the early 1960s, the theatre was renamed the Shaftesbury Theatre under the management of Charles Clore and EMI (the original Shaftesbury Theatre had been bombed in the War). Notable productions at this time included How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and, in 1968, the revolutionary musical Hair, which played for over 5 years. After closing for renovation work, the theatre reopened in 1974 with West Side Story. Since 1984 it has been owned by the Theatre of Comedy Company.

A dressing room

Our tour began in the foyer, moving into the auditorium and then backstage, walking past the quick-change area and rows of wigs. We stood on the stage and were able to see into the wings, where the props are stored between scenes.

On the roof

There followed a long walk upstairs, past numerous dressing rooms. I feel sorry for the actors, having to run up and down stairs all night! We passed through the theatre offices and up onto the roof, which is an original Edwardian roof that opens onto the sky. It still works – and was made use of during the summer when it was exceptionally hot and the air conditioning broke.

On the roof

Finally, we headed to the top of the theatre to look at the lighting rig and the complex scenery structure.

The top of the theatre

I loved my tour of the Shaftesbury Theatre, and next time I attend a performance here I will be able to look at it with new eyes!

Pinter at the Pinter – One for the Road / New World Order / Mountain Language / Ashes to Ashes / The Pres and an Officer

As soon as the Pinter at the Pinter season was announced, I knew I had to go. I’ve had a mixed experience with Harold Pinter’s works, but I definitely seem to prefer his shorter pieces, and that’s exactly what this season is all about.

This first production of the season features a selection of plays and sketches about politics and power, often funny and frequently deeply chilling, often terrifying. Violence rarely takes place on stage, but is strongly hinted at in the gaps between the scenes. In Mountain Language, a play in which mountain dwellers are forbidden to speak their native tongue, a young prisoner raises the ire of a guard and we see him in the next scene, covered in blood and shivering, while his mother huddles speechless in the corner. In New World Order, a pair of guards, reminiscent of the thugs from The Birthday Party, laugh at a man strapped to a chair and clearly about to undergo torture; their inconsequential chat still manages to draw laughs despite the horror of the situation.

In Precisely, Maggie Steed and Kate O’Flynn discuss 20 million dead in a chillingly casual, matter-of-fact way, and the pair also recite, in character, two poems, American Football and Death. In One for the Road, a bureaucrat grows drunk on power as he interviews a prisoner and his family, drunk too on the bottle of whisky he constantly pours from. In Ashes to Ashes, directed by Lia Williams, the longer piece that makes up the second half, a young woman drifting in and out of reality confesses her past to her partner.

Pinter died ten years ago, but his work is often prescient. The Pres and an Officer, about an idiotic President who nukes London mistaking it for the capital of France, could have been written for Trump. The opening sketch, Press Conference, is another masterpiece of black humour, as a Minister of Culture is interviewed, revealing horrors.

Directed by Jamie Lloyd, the tone is chilling and unsettling, with familiar music twisted into unfamiliar notes. The performances are superb, particularly from Anthony Sher as a genial monster in One for the Road, and Paapa Essiedu in a number of roles including Sher’s near-silent victim and a young prisoner in Mountain Language. The first production of the season is powerful and memorable.

A Winning Hazard

It was very lucky that I managed to get a ticket to the Finborough Theatre’s set of three Victorian comediettas by J. P. Wooler (who died 150 years ago in 1868, the year the Finborough was constructed). The last, and only non-sold out, performance was the Tuesday matinee, and by coincidence I’d already booked that day off work. So it was clearly fate.

The three short plays draw humour from the evergreen subjects of love and marriage. A Winning Hazard (1865) sees two young men vying for the hands of their uncle’s two wards, in the knowledge that whoever first succeeds in winning a promise of marriage will inherit their uncle’s fortune. Therefore, the pair spend as much time trying to sabotage each other’s relationships as they do promoting their own. Allow Me to Apologise (1850s) concerns a young lady who, while dressed as a man in Bath, won the affections of her current beau’s sister, and now seeks to untangle herself from a tricky situation while getting the better of her idiotic guardian. Orange Blossoms (1860s) centres on a woman-hating bachelor who detests the idea of marriage. When he is visited by some friends, he tries to rekindle their past histories of romance with each other, but ends up becoming entangled with the one woman he seems to respect – man-hating Loo.

There is a clear Shakespearean influence, particularly of As You Like It in Allow Me to Apologise and of Much Ado About Nothing in Orange Blossoms. The cast of six are full of energy and make sure everyone is caught up in the events of the plays. I particularly liked Max Marcq as a pair of would-be suitors and the determined bachelor of Orange Blossoms, and Jasmine Blackborrow as the spirited Miss Fanny Fairlove in Allow Me to Apologise and man-hating Little Loo in Orange Blossoms. However, all of the performers deserve credit.

There is nothing particularly edgy or shocking about these plays, but at the same time there is nothing especially dated about the subjects they cover; even the language and attitudes they explore are surprisingly modern at times. The Finborough’s production proves that these Victorian comedies still have the power to amuse.