Gloria

I wasn’t bothered about going to see Gloria until I found out that it was written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who penned the recent, brilliant production of An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre. Stylistically, Gloria is full of surprises and sharp wit, like the previous play; plot-wise, however, it couldn’t be more different.

Gloria is set in the world of magazine journalism, and the first act introduces us to a group of young people working for the same production, including a naive intern, a disillusioned editorial assistant, and a would-be fashion writer who spends more time in the Starbucks queue than she does actually working. Not to mention the Gloria of the title, a long-standing member of the team who’s seen as slightly weird. It’s an on-the-nose take about working life for millennials, but just when you think you know what’s going on, a major event occurs that will have repercussions for everyone involved.

The play as a whole becomes an intelligent look at who has the right to tell whose stories, how these stories are manipulated to make money, and how people get caught up in the cut-throat world of the media. The actors, including Colin Morgan, Ellie Kendrick and Kae Alexander, play more than one character throughout the piece, which is cleverly done and often surprising.

Gloria was nominated for a Pulitzer, which I don’t find at all surprising. It’s funny, shocking and very clever, with the sort of themes and characters you can’t stop thinking about for days afterwards. Based on this and An Octoroon, I very much hope that more plays by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins make their way over to the UK.

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Wild Honey

Wild Honey, the 1984 version of Chekhov’s early play without a title by Michael Frayn, has been on my to-see list for a long time now, and I was frankly thrilled when I found out that it was going to be produced at the Hampstead Theatre. It was directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died towards the end of last year, and Jonathan Kent, fresh from the Young Chekhov trilogy.

The play comes hot on the heels of David Hare’s version which played at the National last year, but I detected a different tone in this version. Whereas last year’s Platonov, delivered as part of the Young Chekhov season, aimed to show the development of the youthful dramatist, Wild Honey is more of a polished play in its own right. For what it’s worth, I loved them both.

On the first day of summer in the Russian countryside, a group of old friends congregates at the home of Anna Petrovna, a young widow. Included in the party is Platonov, the schoolmaster, whose moralising and intellectual nature has led his peers to brand him as a philosopher. However, the arrival of a young woman he knew as a student in Moscow – now the wife of Anna Petrovna’s stepson – forces him to examine his life and reflect on the loss of his early promise.

There’s a particular moment when this woman, Sofya, looks at Platonov and asks, “Why haven’t you done better?” and you can see the pain in his eyes as he is forced to confront his own mediocrity. I think most people come to the same realisation at some point in their lives, but it’s incredible that Chekhov understood this when he was only barely out of his teens. Even as the play descends into wildly funny farce, with various women chasing Platonov around the forest, you get the sense that he is really using these love entanglements as a distraction from his real worries.

Indeed, the farcical nature of the play is perfect for adaptor Michael Frayn, whose own farce Noises Off is a classic of the genre. There is comedy, as Platonov tries to juggle his interactions with practically every character in the play. And yet, being Chekhov, tragedy is never far from the surface: both in the main character’s realisation of his own inconsequence, and in the ending, which deviates from the original but which is no less shocking for that.

The play is supported by a superb cast, led by Geoffrey Streatfeild, last seen playing Ivanov at the National, hits all the right notes as the infuriating yet sympathetic Platonov: completely believable as someone whom all the women around him would fall for, but nevertheless rude, selfish and deeply flawed.

Rob Howell’s wooden set evokes the spirit of nineteenth-century Russia, and there is a superb train effect that left a lasting impression on me. Hampstead has scored a hit here as far as I am concerned – a must-see for any Chekhov fan.

Pine

The Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space is a renowned home for new writing, and I went to see Pine, a new play by Jacqui Honess-Martin. Directed by Lisa Spirling, the play is set in a seasonal store that sells Christmas trees, and the designers have gone all out, transforming the Downstairs space into a winter wonderland complete with numerous trees, a netter, and lots of fairy lights.

Gabby (Hannah Britland) is back selling Christmas trees for the fourth year running, bitter at the fact she still hasn’t been able to get a graduate job. Promoted to supervisor by manager Sami (David Mumeni), she has to look out for new girl Betty (Lucy May Barker), Welsh rugby hopeful Joe (Matt Whitchurch) and talented PhD wannabe Taj (Ronak Patani) during the run up to Christmas.

When I first heard about the near three-hour running time, my heart sank, but in fact the play was absorbing enough to get away with it. At first there is plenty of Christmas cheer, as the cast interact with their customers (seen by them, but not by us, the audience) and talk about their plans for the future. As Christmas approaches, however, their optimism starts to unravel. A big theme of the play is the idea of a career in the modern age, and the difficulties faced by new graduates as they try to find something to do with their lives – all a bit close to home for me, and at one point I wondered if I was going to go home feeling thoroughly miserable. However, in the true Christmas spirit, things changed once again and the ending was uplifting, without being overly sentimental.

This is a complex and thoughtful play that is also very funny – and the short interludes between scenes in which the characters sing Christmas songs are enjoyable too. An unexpected Christmas classic that is well worth seeing.

 

Mr Foote’s Other Leg

In 2012, Ian Kelly published a biography of Georgian actor Samuel Foote entitled Mr Foote’s Other Leg. Following the success of this book, he adapted it into a play, which is now showing at the Hampstead Theatre. After it was announced that Simon Russell Beale would be starring as Foote, tickets quickly sold out, so I was lucky to get one, even though I was rather more excited to be seeing Joseph Millson, an actor I’ve liked since I was a fifteen year old watching Peak Practice on a Tuesday night with my mam (I was not a particularly cool teenager).

Youthful reminiscences aside, the concept of a play about the theatre really appealed to me. It begins in unexpected fashion: years after Foote’s death, his former servant and stage hand break into the Hunterian Museum to try and steal his amputated leg, hoping to reunite it with the rest of his body. Cue plenty of laughs, and a humorous tone that lasts throughout the entire play, even when events take a darker turn.

We first meet Foote himself when, along with several other actors including David Garrick (Millson) and Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), he arrives for elocution lessons from Charles Macklin, shortly before the latter accidentally pokes another actor in the eye with his walking stick, leading to his death (yes, this actually happened). Despite this inauspicious beginning, the three remain friends over the next few decades, maintaining a level of mutual respect and love despite considerable artistic differences. We follow Foote as he becomes a hugely popular comic actor, getting round the censors by selling tickets to afternoon tea and offering the plays as an “extra”, and enjoying the patronage of Prince George (later George III) who is played to great effect by playwright Ian Kelly. Foote delights in the theatre as a joyous, ephemeral sort of place, a contrast to the serious and rather pompous Garrick. In one glorious scene, Garrick, horrified that Foote is about to play Othello as a comedy, chases him around the stage, the two of them in blackface and identical costumes, watched with growing bemusement by Foote’s Jamaican servant Frank (Micah Balfour).

After a riding accident, Foote’s leg is amputated in an aurally gruesome scene, each part of the unpleasant process being described by surgeon John Hunter and the other characters who are responsible, in the absence of pain relief, for holding Foote down. If you’re squeamish, you will need to stick your fingers in your ears, but the scene is undoubtedly effective. Following this, Foote becomes increasingly volatile, reckless in performance and causing rumours to be spread about his homosexuality.

As might be expected, Simon Russell Beale is excellent in the leading role, conveying his character’s comedic talents as well as his determination to crack on and make a career out of the loss of his leg. He is also superb in his character’s more vulnerable moments, as well as his sharpness and occasional cruelty. Dervla Kirwan is also excellent as Peg, her character’s humanity and warmth shining through. Joseph Millson is marvellous as David Garrick, pompous and severely lacking in a sense of humour, but loyal when it counts and appealing in his sincerity.

The richness of subject matter contained within a biography does make for a rather disjointed play: I struggled to work out the relevance of the Benjamin Franklin sections to the rest of the piece, for example. Having said that, although it is a very long play, it was never boring and the time flew by for me.

Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was one of the earliest stand-up comedians, enjoyed considerable fame in his day, secured the royal patent for the Theatre Royal Haymarket and had a rich and event-filled life. Yet he is a figure I hadn’t heard of until this play was announced. If this work can raise awareness of Foote’s incredible life, then it will have done its job; and while it isn’t perfect, it is gloriously entertaining.

Matchbox Theatre

Last year, acclaimed author and playwright Michael Frayn released Matchbox Theatre: a series of short sketches or “entertainments” designed to be read rather than performed. That hasn’t stopped Hampstead Theatre mounting a production: delivered in-the-round, it starts with an actor introducing the evening to us, growing increasingly frazzled as she does so. This sets the scene for the varied sketches that follow.

Frayn is the author of the funniest play I have ever seen, Noises Off, so I was expecting big things from his new work. Sadly I was slightly disappointed. The quality of the sketches varied widely: some were very funny indeed (I particularly liked the restaurant scene in which one diner kept correcting the pronunciation of her neighbour) while others raised a smile rather than a laugh. Still an entertaining evening.

Drawing the Line

Howard Brenton’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre, Drawing the Line, showcases his superb talent for presenting historical events in a clearly distilled manner. Here, he tackles the issue of the Partition of India in 1947 by focusing on the man sent to do the job, Cyril Radcliffe, an idealistic individual with an old-fashioned sense of honour who finds himself lumbered with an impossible task.

At first, Radcliffe (sympathetically played by Tom Beard) is proud to have been given the important job of dividing up the country (the Muslim part would eventually become Pakistan) as the end of British rule draws near. However, he is faced with the conflicting demands and desires of Nehru of the Congress party and Jinnah of the Muslim League, not to mention the British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten and his adulterous wife, and comes to realise that nothing he can do will prevent conflict and bloodshed.

The powerful and gripping story kept me hooked, and left me with lots of questions about an area of history of which I know extremely little. A play that can both educate and entertain deserves acclaim, and this does both to an extremely high standard.

Hysteria

Hampstead Theatre has never yet disappointed me, and last night’s performance of Hysteria, about the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, was no exception to the general rule. Set at the end of Freud’s life, when he was living in Hampstead having fled from the Nazis in Vienna, the play sees his theories questioned and his own subconscious examined in a production that is part farce and part tragedy, with a smattering of Surrealist imagery. Terry Johnson wrote the play, and he also directs this production, which started out at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Dozing in his study in the early hours of the morning – a faithful reproduction of the real thing, which can be viewed at the nearby Freud Museum – Freud’s attention is attracted by a soft knocking at the window. A young woman, Jessica, demands that he psychoanalyse her, and will go to any lengths to ensure that he does so – but this isn’t all she has come for. Meanwhile, Freud also receives visits from his doctor and none other than the painter Salvador Dali. As Freud tries to hide the young woman’s existence from his other visitors, and she relates the story of why she is here, the doubts and flaws in Freud’s theories are revealed.

There is a strong farcical element to the play, particularly during the first half, with characters hiding in cupboards and wearing each other’s clothes. Unsurprisingly, we also see plenty of phallic symbols. I hadn’t expected it to be so funny, intellectually as well as physically. The humour makes the moments of sadness, when they come, all the more affecting. The treatment of mental illness and distress is, after all, a central element of the play, and in addition the shadow of the Nazis is always present.

A superb group of actors help to make the play what it is. Adrian Schiller is brilliant as the flamboyant Dali, providing many of the best laughs of the evening as well as revealing a more sensitive side. David Horovitch is a solid presence as Doctor Yahuda, the sanest character in the play. Lydia Wilson is outstanding as the young woman, Jessica, whose mannerisms and tics when she was on the couch were so  convincing and uncomfortable to watch that at one point I thought I was going to have to leave my seat. And in the middle of it all, Antony Sher is marvellous as Freud himself, as eloquent in his moments of silence and repose as he is in those of disquiet, fear or guilt.