Ghost Stories for Christmas

For only the second time in recent years, I went down to the Questors Theatre in Ealing to experience one of their Ghost Stories for Christmas evenings. The evening was themed around London, and each of the three stories was set in the city.

The first story was a self-penned tale by Nigel Lawrence, called The Iceberg (referring to the habit of creating lavish basements underneath narrow London townhouses, rather than a large block of, erm, ice). It was a genuinely creepy story that also managed to satirise the filthy rich. The second tale, read by Samantha Moran, was The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen. This was a slow-moving but ultimately gripping story set during the Second World War, but harking back to the first. Finally, John Dobson read Mrs Manifold by Stephen Grendon, a story set in the docks of Wapping, focusing on a mysterious landlady and her missing husband.

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Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite Shakespeare play, and I always get a bit nervous when seeing a new production just in case it doesn’t live up to my expectations. This National Theatre production, directed by Simon Godwin, by and large did, and was a fitting end to my year of theatregoing. It opens with Octavius’ final tribute to Cleopatra, and then takes us back to the beginning of the play, with Cleopatra and her lover Antony very much alive.

The titular pair are a dream pairing of Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes. I admit I didn’t take to Okonedo’s performance at first, but grew to appreciate her complex and multi-layered portrayal. Alternately teasing, cajoling and bullying, she uses wiles to keep hold of Antony when declarations of love might do a better job, yet faces her end with pride and genuine majesty. I was impressed with Fiennes from the start, not least with his unselfish willingness to yield the attention to Okonedo – as it should be. Yet he gives an accomplished performance in his own right, recognisable as a warrior who knows that his best days are behind him. The pair have great chemistry, but watching the play I was reminded that they are apart for most of it, and their relationship is built up with words as much as their actual presence.

The supporting cast are strong, too, with Nicholas Le Provost and Tunji Kasim excellent as the ageing Lepidus and the arrogant, youthful Octavius Caesar. Fisayo Akinade makes a splash – literally – as the unlucky messenger Eros, while Katy Stephens proves that making the character of Agrippa female was the right decision for this play. There’s a hint of a past relationship between her and Tim McMullan’s womanising Enobarbus: the latter is one of my favourite characters in the play, and here it’s shown that his end is in its own way just as tragic as that of the protagonists.

The set, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, conjures up a coolly modern Rome and an elaborate Egypt, complete with over-the-top water feature. The most dramatic moment comes when Pompey’s flagship – a giant submarine – rises up, an impressive use of the Olivier’s infamous drum revolve.

While a bit long, the production is engaging, powerful and ultimately worthwhile.

Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds

I’m not sure if The War of the Worlds really qualifies to be reviewed on a theatre blog. It’s not a musical, but a concept album originally composed in 1978 (hence the 40th anniversary tour this year) and performed live with visual effects and a cast of singers. Still, it’s a pretty dramatic theatrical spectacle.

The talented bands do full justice to the score (which I thought I didn’t know, but which I did recognise, at least the opening bars), conducted by Jeff Wayne himself, still energetic at 75. The music, much of which is instrumental, is accompanied by visual storytelling, digital screens with a mix of animation, old Victorian footage, and modern live-action film. We have Liam Neeson narrating as the Journalist, and appearing on stage as a hologram; other performers also make occasional appearances.

These include Adam Garcia as the Artilleryman, Newton Faulkner as The Sung Thoughts of the Journalist, and Nathan James as The Voice of Humanity (yes, these latter two character names made me raise my eyebrows). Anna-Marie Wayne stars as the Journalist’s wife, and Jason Donovan and Carrie Hope Fletcher appear as the Parson and his wife. It’s a very random selection of performers, but what they all have in common is singing talent, even if the acting can be a bit over the top at times (I’m looking at you, Donovan).

As well as the digital storytelling, we have an actual Martian lowered down from the stage, and some impressive light effects – it’s almost as if you’re being zapped by aliens yourself. Along with the Victorian-style costumes, the whole effect is very steampunk.

Undoubtedly, The War of the Worlds is over the top, but as my friend put it, “if you can’t be OTT about an alien invasion, what can you be OTT about?” Ultimately, it is highly entertaining and memorable.

The Tragedy of King Richard II

This version of The Tragedy of King Richard II at the Almeida Theatre restores Shakespeare’s original title, but that’s about the only thing that’s traditional about Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production. Interestingly, it begins with Simon Russell Beale’s Richard making the famous speech beginning, “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world,” a powerful moment that is unfortunately let down by what follows.

This hugely truncated production is just over an hour long without interval; sometimes the characters seem to be racing through their speeches as if they know they’ve got a lot to get through. This gets rid of a lot of nuance, and also leads to a very confusing play: even for someone like me who’s seen several other productions of Richard II. The set, by Ultz, is a bare grey box that results in poor acoustics and hard-to-hear dialogue at times.

On the plus side, the production succeeds in conveying the atmosphere of a country in turmoil. It also draws parallels with the world of today: Brexit is never explicitly mentioned, but the inference is there for all to see. Without a strong leader, the country falls apart. Richard is ineffective and Henry Bolingbroke – the future Henry IV – is, as played by Leo Bill, brutish and mean.

For me, this production was a disappointment. Simon Russell Beale is first-rate: I just wish he’d been in a better production. A rare miss from the Almeida, as far as I’m concerned.

The Double Dealer

I made a last-minute decision to go and see The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. This 1693 Restoration play, written by William Congreve (best known for The Way of the World) when he was just 24, has an unpolished youthful charm.

Director Selina Cadell has added a prologue, in the style of the play, reassuring us that the plot isn’t too important – the humour is the main thing. This is actually good to know as the plot does get VERY confusing. It features at its heart a young couple who wish to marry, with numerous ‘friends’ and relations conspiring to break apart the union for whatever reason. Some actors play more than one part: a special mention here to Zoë Waites who plays two very different women. Differences of character are shown by differences in costume: I felt rather sorry for Waites, who must have been rather warm after spending approximately half of the evening wearing two dresses one on top of the other.

Jenny Rainsford as the flirtatious Lady Plyant was probably my favourite, but all the cast did a really good job with the fast-paced plot and reams of (highly entertaining) dialogue. For an older play, it certainly wasn’t dry or dull.

If it isn’t always possible to work out exactly what Maskwell (Edward MacLiam), the ‘double dealer’ of the title, is doing, it is nevertheless satisfying to witness him getting his comeuppance. I have no complaints to make about this highly entertaining revival: definitely worth seeing.

A Christmas Carol

Earlier this year I saw the Old Vic’s production of A Christmas Carol. This December I finally made it to Stratford to see the RSC’s version, written by David Edgar and directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.

This version features Dickens himself as a character, as he wonders how to convey to the public the horror of poverty and want. His friend, John Forster, suggests a story, and this is exactly what Dickens does, using A Christmas Carol – as he used much of his work – to raise awareness. At one point, we hear some sobering statistics about children in poverty – a nice touch, I thought, was that these statistics related to nearby Birmingham, rather than the London of Dickens’ original story.

None of this detracts from the power of the original tale, though. Aden Gillett is a superb Scrooge, convincing as the miser persuaded to think again by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. There are some genuinely creepy moments, particularly when Scrooge’s door knocker transforms into the haunted face of Marley.
Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has created a vivid Victorian world, with Scrooge’s cold office, Bob Cratchit’s meagre but welcoming home and the wintry streets of London all beautifully realised. Of course, the ‘Christmas Past’ part of the story is set in the Georgian era, and this part too is rich in detail – with a modern touch in the form of contemporary names for some of the minor characters (such as Snapchat and Tinder). The three ghosts who guide Scrooge through his exploration are well drawn, my particular favourite being Christmas Present.

I must confess, for me this production didn’t quite reach the heights of the Old Vic’s version. However, it is still a worthwhile production of the classic tale that is sure to make anyone feel festive.

Peter Pan

I’ve seen so many productions of Peter Pan over the years – some panto, some not – but I was still pleased at the thought of being able to see J.M. Barrie’s original play, as advertised at the Park Theatre.

As it happens, it’s not quite faithful to the original. Most of Barrie’s script remains, but the setting is a modern one, and a few updates have crept in. I couldn’t help wishing that they’d either stuck to the original wholeheartedly, keeping the production a period piece, or else made more considerable changes.

This is obviously a production on a budget, but director Jonathan O’Boyle and designer Gregor Donnelly have come up with some good ideas that make the most of the space, which transforms from a children’s bedroom to the world of Neverland. The dog, Nana, is a bunch of autumn leaves that comes to life in front of our eyes, while the bedroom cupboard becomes a handy rock on which our hero and heroine try to escape the rising water during the lagoon sequence. The crocodile, which makes its appearance at the end of the show, will be familiar to anyone who saw the Open Air Theatre’s production of Peter Pan, but I wish they’d chosen a different way to show him, because it’s nowhere near as impressive as the Open Air Theatre managed to be.

There are some good performances from newcomer Nickcolia King-N’Da as a suitably cheeky, charming Peter, and from Alexander Vlahos as the dastardly Captain Hook. I also liked Natalie Grady’s turn as Smee. Overall the show moved along at a good pace, but some of the scenes were a tad anticlimactic.

Overall, I did think this was a decent production. I just think it could have been better. Still, it should please youngsters, and families looking for a suitable Christmas show.