The Best Man

The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s 1960 play about two men at a Philadelphia Democrat convention competing to be nominated by their party as potential presidents, has never been seen in the West End until now. This production, which arrives from a UK tour, is directed by Simon Evans. Despite its age, it’s not hard to see why the play has been revived now: the themes of political truth, populism and ethics can be applied easily to today’s world.

Vidal’s protagonist William Russell is an intellectual, a thoughtful, intelligent man who quotes Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell and takes the time to think about any situation. His rival, Joe Cantwell, is a Southerner who prides himself on being a self-made man and claims to be able to relate to the average American voter. Russell is far from perfect: his philandering is famous and his relationship with his wife is cordial but distant. Cantwell appears to have no vices: he doesn’t even drink or smoke, and he is completely faithful to his wife. Yet he is the one who digs up a medical report on Russell relating to the latter’s breakdown several years ago, claiming that the man is mentally unfit to lead the nation. Russell is subsequently handed some damning information on Cantwell, and while he is reluctant to use it, knows that it might be his only chance to win.

Gore Vidal is best known as a novelist, and watching this play it’s easy to tell: I got the impression the story would have worked just as well as a novel. This is not to denigrate the play, however: Vidal knows how to ramp up the tension as we wonder what decision Russell will make. The language of the play is rich too, witty, incisive and with plenty of food for thought.

Martin Shaw is superb as Russell, with Glynis Barber also excellent as his warm, dignified wife Alice. Jeff Fahey proves a worthy opponent as Cantwell, with Honeysuckle Weeks charming as his Southern-belle wife. Among the supporting cast, Maureen Lipman steals every scene she’s in as committee chair Sue-Ellen Gamadge and Jack Shepherd is memorable as an ageing ex-President. Michael Taylor’s opulent hotel room design serves as the suite for both presidential candidates (with just a change of placards to indicate the switch).

Before going in I feared that I was in for a dull, dry evening at the theatre, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. This production has no bells and whistles, but it’s intelligent and compelling nevertheless.

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Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt is an Ibsen play I’d never seen before, so I booked to see a production at the Questors Theatre in Ealing. One of the playwright’s more fantastical works, it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale and tells of the life of Peer, who gets caught up in a world of trolls, mystery and magic, and travels through Europe and Africa well beyond his native Norway.

The large cast did a superb job, especially considering it was an amateur production. I was particularly struck by the play’s Shakespearean influences, in both the story and the language, although how much of this was down to Ibsen and how much to the play’s translator, I am unsure.

Throughout the course of the play, Peer seems to be searching for his essential self, determined not to do anything that might obstruct who he really is. In this sense it seems to be grappling with contemporary ideas of philosophy and psychology.
I really enjoyed this production, and the chance to see another Ibsen play.

Yvette

Yvette is a one-woman show written and performed by Urielle Klein-Mekongo. It’s currently touring London; I saw it at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush.

Told using a mix of theatre, spoken word and song, it’s the story of thirteen-year-old Evie, who lives in Neasden with her mum, navigating the difficult waters of sex, relationships and growing up. We hear from Evie at thirteen and a few years older, as she attempts to tell us about a traumatic event that shaped her life.

The hour-long show is clever and compelling, making use of a simple set with Evie at its centre – Klein-Mekongo is superb, sympathetic and able to evoke deep sadness and anger, as well as being an extremely talented singer. Throughout the show she puts on a variety of personas, including her mother, a friend and the boy she has a crush on, and is very effective and funny.

The humour makes the climax of the show all the more shocking. Sensitively done, it’s nevertheless memorable and I’m sure will stick in the mind of every audience member.
Yvette is truly an excellent show, and one which I have no hesitation in recommending.

Shackleton’s Cat

Shackleton's Cat flyer

Though advertised as a children’s opera, there was no way I was going to miss Shackleton’s Cat, performed by English Touring Opera at the Albany, Deptford, which tells the story of the Endurance expedition which famously ran into disaster off the coast of Antarctica. Composed by Russell Hepplewhite, with a libretto by director Tim Yealland, it begins in the present day, when a group of scientists researching climate change unearth a bone belonging to a cat. We then go back to 1913, when Ernest Shackleton is recruiting members for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful’). One of his recruits is carpenter Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish, who brings his cat Mrs Chippy (who is actually a boy, as the crew are at pains to point out to Shackleton – repeatedly).

Accompanied by Frank Wild, Frank Worsley and the stowaway Perce Blackborow (the cast is too small to represent every crew member, but the audience are invited to represent them), Shackleton heads towards Antarctica, landing first at South Georgia before proceeding to the Weddell Sea, where the ship gets stuck in pack ice. After months on the ice, the ship is destroyed and the crew must embark on a desperate voyage of survival. Sadly, Mrs Chippy must be left behind. The rest of the opera goes on to tell how the majority of the crew waited at Elephant Island, while Shackleton, McNish and four others went off in the lifeboat the James Caird to try and reach South Georgia. Luckily, as we all know, they made it, and everyone was rescued.

I found the opera entrancing: the music, the story, and the performances. The design by Jude Munden is hugely inventive, and there is some beautiful use of puppetry, including Mrs Chippy himself (one little boy asked if he was real) to the tiny figures used to demonstrate sailing on the sea and clambering over South Georgia. I wondered how the opera was going to handle the death of Mrs Chippy in a way suitable for children, but I thought this was done very sensitively. The whole thing really captivated the children in the audience, and has clearly been designed with the interests and tastes of little ones in mind: there is a gleefully grotesque toe amputation scene, and a few fart jokes thrown in for good measure.

Despite the age recommendation (7-11 years) I’d recommend this for all ages – it’s a fantastic story beautifully told, and my friend and I (both well over the recommended age range!) really loved it.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, or The Beau Defeated

It was the title that first drew me to this play, followed by the knowledge that it was written by a woman – Mary Pix, one of the most popular playwrights of her era. Interestingly, the title The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich was chosen by the RSC, the original being The Beau Defeated – so it looks like their decision worked in my case. This Restoration comedy, first staged in 1700, has been directed for the RSC by Jo Davies, and is currently being performed in the Swan Theatre.

Starring the superb Sophie Stanton as newly-widowed Mrs Rich, the play follows the adventures of this wealthy woman as she searches for a husband who will give her a title and a position in society. At the same time, her lodger Lady Landsworth (the appealing Daisy Badger), another widow, is looking for love and thinks she has found it in the person of Clerimont, an impoverished young nobleman. The plot is reminiscent of Congreve’s The Way of the World (currently running at the Donmar), which also features a widow who becomes a target for cruel tricks. The outcome in this case, however, is very different.

Refreshingly, the play is dominated by the female characters: as well as Mrs Rich and Lady Landsworth we have the intelligent and cunning maid, Betty (Laura Ellsworthy), the landlady Mrs Fidget (Sadie Shimmin), and Mrs Rich’s young niece Lucinda (Aretha Ayeh, demonstrating just the right mix of innocence and mischief). Whatever their faults, it’s impossible not to admire these women, who make the most of whatever power is available to them – wealth, beauty, intelligence – to get what they want.

It’s one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a while, with great performances from Tam Williams as Sir John Roverhead, the beau of the title, Solomon Israel as the younger Clerimont, who might be honourable and decent but is also prone to whining and fits of exaggerated despair, and Leo Wringer as his older brother, who loves his dogs more than any humans. We also get two of those dogs on stage: I’m not really a dog person, but Lossie and Theia are lovely.

Actors wear contemporary costume, which I feel suits the production better than modern dress would have done, while Colin Richmond’s design makes use of contemporary portraits to remind us of the period, with writing to remind us where each scene is set (with such a complex plot, this is welcomed).

I had such a good time at this play, and I hope the RSC will continue to put on these relatively obscure older plays so that people like me can enjoy them.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Mother of the Pride

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was one of the most famous women of medieval Europe, and the richest woman of her time, becoming Queen of France as the wife of Louis VII and, then, England as the wife of Henry II. Among her eight children were the future kings Richard (‘the Lionheart’) and John, infamous for the signing of the Magna Carta.

92-year-old Eileen Page brings this incredible woman to life in this one-woman show, written by Catherine Muschamp. Speaking to us from her throne, Eleanor tells us of her life, her childhood and her two marriages, her resentment of her second husband’s dalliance with Rosamund Clifford, the murder of Thomas Beckett and the intrigues she practised with her children that got her imprisoned for fourteen years. Along the way she maintains a belief in the equality of men and women; whether this proto-feminist attitude is dramatic licence or not, it certainly seems to have been borne out in Eleanor’s life.

Page’s performance is a masterclass of acting: she grabs our attention and maintains it throughout the show, exuding class and power. A memorable experience.