Lady Anna: All At Sea

In Anthony Trollope’s bicentenary year, there are attempts to promote and re-examine the work of, I believe, one of the most underrated Victorian writers. This play, Lady Anna: All At Sea, has been commissioned by the Trollope Society and blends together the plot of Lady Anna (1871) with the real-life journey of Anthony and his wife Rose to Australia, where they are to witness their son’s marriage. I’ve read many Trollope novels, but Lady Anna isn’t one of them, meaning that I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen; but there is plenty to enjoy here for those familiar with the book.

A picture of Trollope overhangs the stage as we enter, and Libby Watson’s design, which cleverly consists of piles of books which double as drawers, seats and stepping stones, reflects the idea of Trollope writing the novel as he travels to Australia. Tim Frances plays the novelist in a convincing portrayal, full of energy and enthusiasm for his work as he continually contradicts the expectations of his fellow passengers. His wife, more concerned with social mores, is played by Caroline Langrishe, who also portrays the Countess Lovel, the mother of Lady Anna determined to see her daughter rise high in the world. Antonia Kinlay plays Anna herself, as well as the Trollopes’ maid, who enjoys reading her employer’s novels and is excited by the possibilities that Australia affords.

The central issue of Lady Anna is the dilemma the title character faces: whether she should seek to marry the Earl, Frederick (Adam Scott-Rowley), left penniless by the will of the old Earl who instead left all his money to his questionably legitimate daughter Anna, or socialist Daniel Thwaite (Will Rastall), the son of the tailor who took in Anna and her mother when they were friendless and alone. Nothing happens the way you think it will in Trollope’s world, and the play, penned with intelligence and wit by Craig Baxter, is a powerful reminder of just how good a writer he is. I particularly liked the scene in which Anna’s mother calls her an “impertinent slut” before turning to the audience and assuring us that this phrase does, indeed, appear in Trollope’s novel. The two story halves blend together well, the underlying theme being the issue of class, with Australia holding the promise of a more equal future.

I saw a preview of this production, but as there is only one preview, I can’t imagine the play will have changed a great deal by the official opening night. I’d say it’s a must-see for any fans of Trollope, and could well convert those who were previously indifferent to the author.

Three Irish Classics

I paid another visit to the Pentameters Theatre, a lovely little welcoming theatre in Hampstead (with armchairs for seating!), to see three Irish classic plays performed, directed by John Dunne. The three plays had very different tones: Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge saw two sisters discover that their brother is lost at sea and try to hide this from their mother; The Pot of Broth by W.B. Yeats was about a beggar woman who manages to convince a rather stuck-up lady that she has a magic stone which can make delicious soup; and The Travelling Man by Lady Gregory had something of a religious tone, with a travelling man entering a house and entrancing the young daughter. These three plays were all little gems and provided a strong hour’s entertainment, with excellent performances all round.

King Lear with Sheep

I’ve seen plenty of animals on stage in my time – ponies, dogs, a cat and even piglets – but I honestly never thought I’d see sheep. Yet that’s exactly what I did see in the straightforwardly-named King Lear with Sheep, a show that I saw at the Courtyard Theatre near Old Street.

The brainchild of Missouri Williams, the show is about a director (gamely played by Alasdair Saksena) who first bemoans the lateness of his King Lear cast, and then tries desperately to get them to cooperate. It appears that Cordelia is the culprit – an adorable little black sheep dressed, as they all are, in a tiny costume. Lear himself even gets a crown.

Saksena is on stage for about ten minutes before the sheep arrive, and when they are released into the stage/their pen there is a cumulative “aahhh” from the audience. The sheep – which are individually credited in the programme-poster – are no strangers to the world of showbiz, and despite one of them (Gloucester?) peeing on the stage shortly after entering, they are naturals. Obviously the show is pretty much a monologue, but the baaa’s of the sheep demonstrate an impressive sense of comic timing.

As he gets more and more frustrated, Saksena demonstrates a particularly Lear-like journey towards madness, until the play culminates in Cordelia’s death scene, with Saksena sitting on the floor clutching “Cordelia” in a surprisingly touching scene. (Note – if you’ve never seen or read King Lear, this play will probably make little sense to you). Sure, it’s rather gimmicky, but it’s entertaining all the same – an impressive mix of the ridiculous and the tragic.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, the show was so popular that it sold out its original run and will be returning to the Courtyard in September. If you decide to go for it, I can guarantee it will be one of the most unusual plays you’ll see this year.

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel is a musical based on the novel by Vicki Baum and subsequent film, with a book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by George Forrest and Robert Wright, and additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. It is currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, directed by Thom Southerland, and knowing that theatre’s well-deserved reputation for reinventing lesser-known musicals, I booked my ticket straight away.

In Berlin’s Grand Hotel, all life can be found, from wealthy and notorious guests to lowly hotel staff. On a traverse stage, the varied characters come to life: a dying Jewish bookkeeper who wants to taste life before he leaves it; a fading ballerina; a troubled typist with Hollywood ambition; an attractive but poverty-stricken Baron; an elderly doctor with war wounds; a businessman facing financial ruin; a hotel worker worrying about his wife in labour. Each of the characters comes to life in their own way, their stories interweaving with one another over the course of a few days. The setting and the period are reminiscent of Cabaret, though this musical never quite reaches those heights: there are too many characters to become really involved in any of the stories.

The lead actors are accomplished: I particularly liked George Rae’s sympathetic portrayal of a dying young man, and Scott Garnham’s performance as a conscience-stricken Baron. However, the musical truly shines during the ensemble numbers, particularly the opening routine and the show’s closing sequence, which reflects the looming Great Depression and the rise of the Nazis. It’s set in Berlin, after all. None of the musical numbers really stood out for me, but the music blended together as a whole to be an evocative and atmospheric evocation of the time and place. Lee Proud’s choreography is effective and dynamic, particularly during the 20s-era Foxtrot and Charleston.

I didn’t love Grand Hotel as much as some of the other shows I’ve seen recently at Southwark; but it’s a good production of a decent musical, and it is well worth seeing.

 

Romeo and Juliet

While I was in Stratford I was able to enjoy an outdoor performance at The Dell, which has become something of a summer tradition. This time, it was Oxford University Dramatic Society’s production of Romeo and Juliet, with a female Romeo and the descriptive line: “Gay marriage is legal for now, but as the country sleepwalks into right-wing dystopia, there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.”

It’s an intriguing concept, and all the actors are believable and give good performances. However I would have liked to see more reference to the concept in the staging of the play, though I understand that with an outdoor performance this might have been difficult.

Wot? No Fish!!

Wot? No Fish!! is a show written and performed by Danny Braverman, directed by Nick Philippou, and performed at the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. It is the tale of Braverman’s great-uncle, Ab Solomons, a shoemaker who for several decades – from 1926 until the 1980s – doodled art for his wife Celie on the back of wage packets.

We are welcomed to the show by being invited to sample gefilte fish (fish balls) and chrain (horseradish relish), a Jewish delicacy I was unfamiliar with but which I found delicious. Braverman, an engaging storyteller, then proceeded to tell the tale of his family, spanning most of the twentieth century, in the form of these doodles, which he displayed on a projector.

The pictures are honest, beautiful and evocative, spanning the ups and downs of marriage and family life, not shying away from the sadnesses of life but containing great beauty and memories of happiness. From the excitement of Ab and Celie’s newlywed life, to the birth of their two children, the Second World War and the move to Golders Green, the institutionalisation of their son Larry and Celie’s eventual death, the pictures tell one family’s story in an incredibly vivid way.

The images are a snapshot of Jewish culture and twentieth-century London life, but they are also a tribute to family and community that can be universally appreciated. I was incredibly moved by this production, and I am sure it will stay in my memory for a long time.

 

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane, which started life as a 1953 musical film loosely based on the real-life Wild West heroine, comes to Richmond as the final stop in a national tour that began life at the Watermill Theatre, directed by Nikolai Foster. Adapted by Charles K. Freeman, the show, with music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, stars Jodie Prenger, winner of the BBC series I’d Do Anything, in the title role and former Emmerdale star Tom Lister as her sometime antagonist, Wild Bill Hickock.

It’s an actor-musician show, and the cast prove themselves more than able to both play and sing with aplomb, although I thought a certain spark was lacking… maybe I’m just being picky. The book can sometimes be a bit clumsy, but the varied and impressive score makes up for this, featuring such tuneful and well-known hits as “The Black Hills of Dakota”, “Just Blew In From The Windy City”, “It’s Harry I’m Planning To Marry”, “A Woman’s Touch” and “I Can Do Without You”. With a song about housework and the constant exortations to Jane to get out of her trousers and into a dress, the show isn’t exactly feminist-friendly, but this is a charge that can be levelled at many of the musicals of the period, and if you can accept it as a product of its time there is much to enjoy.

I wasn’t sure about Jodie Prenger’s portrayal of “Calam” – I thought she seemed a bit over the top in her acting, though my doubts fell away as she began to sing, her charisma, stage presence and powerful voice showing why she is a star. I particularly enjoyed her rendition of “Secret Love”, the song that won an Oscar at the time of its release. Tom Lister was superb as Wild Bill Hickock, Jane’s sparring partner and eventual lover, and I was very impressed by his performance of “My Love Is Higher Than A Hawk”. Matthew Wright’s set is ingenious, the stage-within-a-stage serving multiple uses.

If you can get to Richmond before Saturday, it’s worth catching this tour before it ends – Calamity Jane has, surprisingly, never been seen in the West End, so this may be your only chance for a while.