The Go-Between

The Go-Between, a new musical adapted and written by David Wood and Richard Taylor, sparked my interest for being based on the 1953 book of the same name by L.P. Hartley, which I read and enjoyed many years ago. However, it was the choice of Michael Crawford in the main role that swayed me. Famed for originating the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, he plays the main character’s older self, acting as narrator and is a constant presence on stage as he looks back into his past.

The story concerns a young boy, Leo Colston, who goes to stay with his richer friend Marcus one summer at the beginning of the twentieth century and becomes caught up in the secret romance blooming between Marcus’ older sister Marian and a local farmer, Ted Burgess. While the young Leo doesn’t always fully understand what is going on, the older Leo knows only too well. Crawford is superb in the role, conveying emotion wonderfully, and while he doesn’t have the vocal power that he used to, he still has a wonderful voice and his frailer tones fit the character.

Directed by Roger Haines, the show relies heavily on the two young boys who play Leo and Marcus, and at the performance I saw, Luka Green and Samuel Menhinick were both superb, particularly Samuel whose character of Marcus was incredibly annoying but very well portrayed. Among the adults, Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward were very good as Marian and Ted, while Issy Van Randwyck managed to be both charming and ultimately threatening as Marcus and Marian’s mother.

The simple set was evocative, with moving chairs and a piano, beautifully played by Nigel Lilley, the only instrument featured in the score. The music fit the piece beautifully, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable except for the song ‘Butterfly’.

This isn’t your average musical: it’s soft, evocative and subtle, not big and brash and loud like so many of the West End’s other offerings. Yet it’s well worth seeing, moving and quietly devastating.

Hamlet

The RSC have been working their way through the Shakespeare canon, and now in the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death it’s the turn of Hamlet. I’ve seen countless productions of Hamlet over the years but something keeps drawing me back, the play itself is pretty impressive but every production has had something different to offer.

This one, directed by Simon Godwin (who also directed the rather excellent Two Gentlemen of Verona a few years ago), is set in a country reminiscent of a modern African nation, with atmospheric music composed by Sola Akingbola and bright costumes and sets designed by Paul Wills. We see Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) graduating from Wittenberg University before the play begins: the emphasis in this production is on Hamlet as a young man fundamentally changed by the experiences he has had away from home, and how he tries to make sense of the culture and recent events back home. For me, the implication was of a Hamlet pretending to go mad in an attempt to catch out his uncle, but his feigned madness seemed to become real as he struggled to cope with what was going on.

I was impressed with Essiedu’s performance. I’m so used to seeing famous actors as Hamlet that I found it quite refreshing to see someone who I personally wasn’t familiar with on stage. I thought he was excellent, with strong stage presence and a freshness about his speech, especially in his “To be or not to be”, which can often sound stale.
Cyril Nri lent Polonius the familiar mix of pomposity and dignity: the relationship between him and his children Laertes (Marcus Griffiths) and Ophelia (Natalie Simpson) was genuine and touching.

Clarence Smith was good as Claudius but I was particularly struck by Tanya Moodie as Gertrude. There were some interesting choices made relating to her character: during the scene in which Hamlet confronts her in her bedroom, it is suggested that she can see the ghost of Old Hamlet too, and when she comes to tell us of Ophelia’s drowning, she is wet and muddy, suggesting she waded in after her.

Special mention must go to James Cooney who played Horatio owing to the indisposition of Hiran Abeysekera. Romayne Andrews took over Cooney’s original role of Rosencrantz and both of them were superb.

Because I know the play so well, I am able to and enjoy pay attention to the little things that make up a production like this. One of the “love tokens” given to Ophelia by Hamlet is a T-shirt with “H loves O” on it: it reminded me of nothing so much of Tom Hiddleston’s infamous “I Love T.S.” shirt, and I had to stifle a giggle. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turned up in Elsinore with some amusing gifts: a tin of shortbread and a teapot in the shape of a red phone box.

Overall I thought this was a memorable production of Hamlet, a fresh and innovative version that I really enjoyed.

A Lesson From Auschwitz

A Lesson From Auschwitz, a short play performed in the Churchill Studio in Bromley, was a tough watch but ultimately worthwhile. The powerful Nazi Rudolf Hess lectures his audience on the importance of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while a prisoner, Abraham Konisberg, stands to one side. Hess instructs us on the necessity of “extermination”: not even women, children or war veterans will be spared. This becomes important later on when we discover that Konisberg served under Hess in the army during World War I.

As Hess, James Hyland has an imposing physical presence and an air of authority: he delivers the Nazi’s speeches with conviction in a chilling and uncomfortable performance. Michael Shon gives a powerful performance as Konisberg, a man who has been worn down by life in Auschwitz but who still retains his dignity.

This is an incredibly powerful piece by Brother Wolf and it’s worth noting that all proceeds from the performance were donated to charity. It’s not an easy watch. The ‘lesson’ from Auschwitz that Hess wanted to impart might have been one thing, but the lesson we learn is another.

House Guest

I like visiting different theatres and I include in this the work of different amateur groups: I find the standard in London to be generally high, and the performance of House Guest I saw was no exception. Performed by the New Stagers in St Anne’s Hall, it was a unpredictable and gripping thriller.

Actors Robert and Stella live a charmed life just south of London with their young son. However, when Robert returns from a trip to Italy without him, he is forced to admit that he has been kidnapped. The kidnappers don’t want money, though: they want one of their number to stay as a guest in the home for several days. Twists and turns ensue as the couple tries to work out what is going on.

There were convincing performances from the whole cast, and the production was of the kind that has you on the edge of your seat throughout. A really enjoyable evening.

Mary Stuart

The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama put on some really good productions, and their latest, a take on Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart (here adapted and directed by Ben Naylor), is no exception. Like the opera version which I saw a few weeks ago, and which was inspired by this play, it tells the story of the last few months in the life of Mary, Queen of Scots and her relationship with Queen Elizabeth I of England.

The play needs strong performances in the two key female roles, and it has them, with tremendous performances from Aamira Challenger (Mary) and Katharine Bubbear (Elizabeth). Mary is regal, defiant but also passionate and playful; she inspires deep loyalty in her servants and followers. Elizabeth is politically shrewd and cleverly manipulative, but feels deeply what it means to kill a reigning queen. A particularly memorable scene is that in which the two queens meet: this never actually happened in real life but that doesn’t stop it making good drama.

There are great performances too from the rest of the cast, especially the hapless statesman who knows he will be blamed no matter what he does about Mary’s death warrant, and the other courtiers and envoys in the palace. A truly high quality production of a fascinating play.

On the Run: Tell Me Anything

Presented at Shoreditch Town Hall in advance of the Edinburgh Fringe, the preview performance of Tell Me Anything by On the Run (Hannah Moss and David Ralfe) showed great promise. It is the story of fifteen-year-old David and his then girlfriend Kate, who was suffering from an eating disorder (atypical anorexia, though as the show is told through the teenage David’s point of view, her condition is referred to alternately as anorexia and bulimia).

With the help of a giant inflatable dolphin, David explores his relationship with Kate, shedding light on his own issues on the way. The show could easily have been seen as exploitative, with a man giving his side of things rather than focusing on the sufferer. However, this wasn’t the case at all. The effect that an individual’s eating disorder has on loved ones is important too, and the show effectively explores David’s well-intentioned but not always appropriate determination to support Kate. The cast and crew list mentions an eating disorders expert, so the group have obviously taken care when tackling this important issue.

The dolphin represents friendship, guidance and gentle nudging, according to the book Skills Based Learning for Caring For a Loved One with an Eating Disorder by Professor Janet Treasure. The show is a sympathetic, sensitive look at teenage love and eating disorders and I think it would be a good choice of production to see if you’re going to the Fringe this year.

Doctor Faustus

I must confess I wasn’t overly thrilled when it was announced that Maria Aberg would be directing the RSC’s forthcoming production of Doctor Faustus. I really wasn’t keen on her version of The White Devil a few years ago, but the reviews of Faustus made me decide to give it a go. I’m glad I did – Aberg’s spare style works well with Christopher Marlowe’s play, and while it’s a non-traditional production, it is atmospheric and memorable.
The roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles are shared by Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan. The two actors walk onto the darkened stage at the beginning of the play and light matches. Whoever’s match goes out first leaves the stage; the remaining performer stays behind and becomes Faustus. At the performance I saw, the auditorium was silent as Oliver Ryan became Faustus and took up his place centre stage.

The oft-told tale of Doctor Faustus tells how he makes a pact with Lucifer to be granted knowledge and power for a period of twenty-four years, after which time his soul belongs to the Devil. This production is interesting in that it suggests Faustus and his servant Mephistopheles are two sides of the same coin, the latter resentful at being kicked out of heaven, and a kind of foreshadowing of Faustus’ eventual fate.

It’s an interesting touch to have Faustus’ friends also playing the angels, another example of doubling in the play. Naomi Dawson’s set is sparse but effective, strewn with boxes: the large pentagram drawn by Faustus to summon up the Devil remains on stage throughout the rest of the play, a reminder of the bargain he has made.

The Seven Deadly Sins segment always strikes me as an excuse for the director to have a bit of fun, and here it was no exception, the motley group revelling in their sins. The text has been heavily cut to fit into a running time of under two hours with no interval: I thought this was very effective at showing the decline of Faustus’ fortunes.

The most memorable aspect of the play for me was the Helen of Troy sequence. Wordlessly choreographed, it was heartbreakingly beautiful as Helen (Jade Croot) seemed to represent everything that Faustus had lost in his life: beauty, innocence and happiness.

A memorable production, I’d be interested in seeing it with the actors the other way around, but because who plays whom is decided on stage each night I don’t think it is viable. Still, it’s certainly worth seeing when it comes to the Barbican later in the year.