Pinter at the Pinter – Moonlight / Night School

I’m never quite sure how I feel about playwright Harold Pinter. I love some of his work but a lot of it leaves me confused. Sadly this duo of plays tended towards the latter.

Moonlight seems to focus on a dying man and his relationship with his family. He berates his wife for her supposed lack of care, while his red-coated daughter wanders outside, and his sons, estranged from their family, carry on with their lives.

Night School tells of a schoolteacher, Sally, who moonlights as a nightclub hostess; her alternative career is discovered by the nephew of her landladies, disgruntled that his aunts have let his room out while he has been in prison. This play was elevated somewhat by its humour: the two aunts, played by Janie Dee and Brid Brennan, are very funny, and Walter (Al Weaver) comes out with one of my favourite lines as he tries to chat up the schoolteacher. “Your eyes. They’re northern eyes. They’re full of soot,” he remarks; he’s clearly lost the art of seduction in prison. There’s a dark undertone typical of Pinter, and the dramatic percussion adds flavour to what was originally a radio play.

This wasn’t my favourite evening of the Pinter season, but it’s worth seeing.

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Pinter at the Pinter – Landscape / A Kind of Alaska / Monologue

Back at the Harold Pinter Theatre for the next instalment in the Pinter at the Pinter season, I settled down to enjoy another selection of short plays and sketches. The first, Tess, was performed by Penelope Wilton – for whom it was written – and was very funny. This was followed by Landscape, a Beckettian piece in which a husband and wife delivered random unconnected monologues, barely seeming to acknowledge the others’ existence.

A number of short sketches followed. Monologue saw Lee Evans on top form as he entered upon a rambling soliloquy to a dead friend, while Apart From That saw him and Meera Syal engaged in a telephone conversation that managed to skirt around the real issue. In That’s All, Evans, Keith Allen and Tom Edden wore blonde wigs and exchanged gossip about another woman, while Trouble in the Works was another sharply observed and amusing sketch, complemented by That’s Your Trouble. In God’s District, Syal played an all-American evangelist, while in Girls, Edden played a bewildered man musing on the phrase, ‘Girls like to be spanked.’

A Kind of Alaska ended the evening, and I would say it was probably the strongest piece here. A woman (the superb Tamsin Grieg) wakes from a coma to find that she has been asleep for twenty-five years. Struggling to come to terms with the loss of her youth, she alternates between disbelief and despair. There are excellent performances from Keith Allen as her doctor and Meera Syal as the sister who has sacrificed her own life to care for her.

Overall a very impressive evening with something for everyone.

NT Live (Encore): King Lear

I’ve spent years trying, and failing, to ‘get’ King Lear. I’ve lost track of the number of productions I’ve seen. The closest I came to it all making sense for me was the Almeida’s production starring Jonathan Pryce, but even then it didn’t quite click. Until now. This intimate, Chichester Festival Theatre production, directed by Jonathan Mumby, which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre and which I saw as an NT Live screening at the Curzon in Richmond. This production has done what no other, even Ian McKellen’s previous turn as Lear, managed to do – make me appreciate the play.

The production is in modern dress, but this is the world where the old gods are worshipped: characters raise their arms when evoking the gods and if one of them fails to perform the necessary formalities, you can see the shock in the other characters’ faces. When the newly-blinded Gloucester (Danny Webb) declares, ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport,’ it rings true, as these gods are always present in the background as the characters reflect on fate. More than any other, this production brought home to me the nihilistic atmosphere of the play, with its constant references to nothing and nothingness.

McKellen plays Lear as a formerly great king, now given over to whims and fancies: when he goes to divide his kingdom, he picks up a map and simply cuts it in two. He is sympathetic, but also unpredictable and angry. I can understand why, for some, he is a man in the grip of dementia, as he seems to regain his senses and lose them again several times during the course of the play. I found myself feeling a certain sympathy for his daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell): after years of preferring their younger sister Cordelia, their father has given the kingdom to them but then turns up at their homes with a large unruly retinue. (Okay, so plotting his death was probably going a bit far).

The sub-plot involving Gloucester, Edgar and his bastard brother Edmund has always interested me, perhaps more so than the main event. Again, here, I found myself sympathising with the supposed villain, as Gloucester openly denigrates his illegitimate son in front of Kent. James Corrigan is handsome and charming: when he remarks: ‘Why bastard? wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam’s issue?’ you find yourself nodding along. Luke Thompson as his brother Edgar is also good: I was always confused by his transformation into ‘Poor Tom’ but I feel as though I understand it more as the reaction of a man who has suddenly become an outcast. I also think I understand, now, why he doesn’t immediately tell his blinded father who he is.

One of the standouts for me was Sinéad Cusack as Kent. Making Kent a woman lends an interesting twist to the first scene: you can see her discomfort when Gloucester is talking about the ‘whore’, Edmund’s mother. For me, the gender switch also made her subsequent disguise as a male servant more believable.

King Lear is a play about fate, tragedy, parents and children, power, and ageing. For me this production helped me to make sense of all of these things. I’ve always known Lear was a great play, but that greatness has always eluded me – until now.

Sunderland Empire: Backstage Tour

Sunderland Empire

Sunderland Empire

The Sunderland Empire is the largest theatre between Manchester and Edinburgh, and one of the first theatres I ever visited, so when I had the chance to go on a theatre tour, I was extremely excited. I took my mam along too and we both had a great time.

Sunderland Empire, or the Empire Palace as it was originally known, was opened in 1907, having been established by Richard Thornton. Vaudeville star Vesta Tilley opened the theatre, which was designed by local architects William and T.R. Milburn. The theatre played host to variety performances until the 1930s, when it also began to host motion pictures. More recently, the theatre has been refurbished, enabling it to host touring productions of big West End shows.

We began our tour in the auditorium, and got to go on stage; as Miss Saigon is currently showing at the theatre, we got to see the helicopter which was pretty awesome. The tour was also a chance to see the view from different levels of the auditorium, which will come in very handy next time I want to book a show here. I particularly liked the boxes, which, unlike most theatres in which they are placed at the side of the stage, are actually at the back of the dress circle. The Empire has 1,860 seats, and can accommodate over 2,000 people including standees.

We didn’t get to see the dressing rooms, as they are currently in use, but we saw the costumes for the current touring production and got some insight into the sheer scale of the work that needs to be done behind the scenes to ensure the show goes on. There are numerous costumes for each performer and understudy, even down to the child costumes, and about four washing machines to keep them all clean, not to mention the wigs which are made out of real hair and need to be cared for accordingly.

Shakespeare mural

Shakespeare mural

One of my favourite parts of the theatre is the grand entrance, at which paintings of important artistic figures, such as Shakespeare and Mozart, have been uncovered after a Seventies director had them painted over in lime green. There wasn’t enough funding to uncover the final painting, so it remains a mystery. I love the grand staircase, though the lime green paint has crept into this area too. The statue of the Greek muse of dance and choral song, Terpsichore, is the original that once sat on top of the theatre, while the dents in the railings come from the bomb damage the theatre sustained during the Second World War.

Grand entrance

Grand entrance

All the way up in the gallery, we heard a few ghost stories. Sid James, who died on stage in 1976, was supposedly heard laughing in a dressing room not long after by performer Les Dawson, who refused to return to Sunderland for the rest of his life. In 1949 a stage manager, Molly Moselle, went missing leaving the theatre and her ghost has sometimes been seen or sensed.

We finished our tour in the first floor bar/cafe area where we had a cup of coffee. I’d definitely like to come back here to have a meal before a show. I must check out the theatre’s upcoming production schedule.

Cafe

Cafe

Midnight in Manhattan

I paid a visit to the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead for another series of Tennessee Williams shorts. These three plays were all set in New York, rather than the Deep South, and were written in the 1930s and 1940s.

In Every Twenty Minutes (1938), a husband boasted about his predilection for other women to his wife, while in The Pink Bedroom (1943) a mistress tried to persuade her lover into a more permanent arrangement; this play ended with an amusing twist. Finally, The Fat Man’s Wife (1938) focused on a woman faced with a difficult choice: should she run away with a younger man or stay with her womanising husband?

All of the plays were well acted and they were surprisingly funny; as usual, the venue was warm and welcoming.

Wunderkammer

I paid a visit to Matchstick Theatre, a new venue in Deptford, to see a new play, Wunderkammer by Francesca Pazniokas. This unusual, inventive play told the story of a bunch of taxidermied animals brought to life by a mysterious youngster.

Though short, the play packed a surprising amount in, focusing on the experiences of the newly-enlivened animals, a motley crew including a dog, a bear, two kittens, a badger, an armadillo and an albatross. After the death of their ‘keeper’, the original taxidermist, the bunch are left searching for a new leader. Some of the animals were sweet and funny – I particularly loved the budding relationship between the armadillo and the badger (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write), while others were more sinister.

The play was obviously produced on a budget, but I loved the inventiveness of the costumes, puppets and sets. Particularly impressive were the complex chain reactions which produced sound and light effects. The story was warm and affecting, centring around the idea of belonging and of being the ‘keeper’ of one’s own life, while the dark fairytale aspect of the story kept it interesting.

I really enjoyed this unusual tale, and I hope to visit this venue again.

Heathers: The Musical

Heathers: The Musical is yet another example of a popular movie which I haven’t seen turned into a stage show. I put off seeing it during initial workshops and subsequent performances at The Other Palace, not thinking it would be my sort of thing. However, I’m so glad I decided to catch it at the Haymarket before it closed, as I absolutely loved it.

Movies – and musicals – set in high school have never appealed to me, even when I was a teenager myself. However, the gleefully dark and intensely satirical tone of Andy Fickman’s production, written by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe drew me in. It centres around wholesome Veronica, who tries to ingratiate herself with the most popular girls in Westerburg High – the three Heathers – in the hope of avoiding being picked on by the school jocks. Her knack for forging hall passes wins their grudging respect, but she still doesn’t really like her new friends. In the meantime, her burgeoning relationship with the new boy JD, who strides about in a long black coat with an intense manner and a copy of Baudelaire’s poems, leaves her torn as she realises he doesn’t like them either. In fact, he hates them and loves her so much that he’s willing to kill them for her – will her adoration blind her to his crimes?

I was completely compelled by the story – having never seen the film, I had no idea what was going to happen and it wasn’t remotely predictable. I rooted for Veronica, played by the hugely talented and appealing Carrie Hope Fletcher, and completely understood why she was swept away by the brooding and arrogant JD (Jamie Muscato, who manages to make a ridiculous song about 7-Elevens compelling). There wasn’t a weak link in the cast, with a particular mention to the three Heathers.

Where a lot of modern musicals fall down, I find, is in the actual music – would I actually want to listen to it again? I loved the music in Heathers, and I hope there’s a cast recording. The set didn’t stand out for me – perhaps a result of the transfer from the fairly small Other Palace – but it was perfectly serviceable.

I have to comment on the audience who were one of the best audiences I’ve ever experienced a West End show with – they were incredibly enthusiastic, clapping and cheering but in all the right places – there was no inappropriate noise and I didn’t hear a single phone going off. During the interval, Eighties songs played and my row had a bit of a sing-along.

My love for this show honestly took me by surprise, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.