A Christmas Carol

There I was insisting I was all Christmas Carol-ed out, but the good reviews of the Old Vic’s version – plus a dose of FOMO – persuaded me to go along to the production in its last week. I’m happy to admit now that it was the right decision – I just wish I hadn’t waited until January.

This adaptation, written by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus, stays true in tone and setting to the original, borrowing plenty of Dickens’ choice phrases – but places a slightly different twist on things, keeping the adaptation fresh. The show is staged in the round, with minimalist suggestive props taking the place of elaborate Victorian scenery. The ensemble cast, as well as playing a variety of roles, narrate and punctuate the action with performances of evocative Victorian carols.

At the centre of it all is Scrooge himself, a wonderful performance by Rhys Ifans, who manages to make his character both larger than life and all too human. His performance is both amusing and deeply touching, reducing me to tears at more than one point. Ifans and the script by Thorne help to portray Scrooge as a kind of everyman – any one of us could be Scrooge, and we are reminded that a transformation such as that portrayed in the show is not easy – interestingly, Scrooge’s joyous Christmas Day awakening is portrayed as yet another dream.

The ghost of Marley (Alex Gaumond), who appears one Christmas Eve to warn Scrooge, is a formidable figure in chains; the the three ghosts (Myra McFayden, Golda Rosheuval and Melissa Allan), whose coming he foretells, are ladies in patchwork pushing prams.

There are elements of pantomime but these are done in the best way possible, with audience members handing down strings of sausages to the front and Brussels sprouts attached to parachutes launched from the top of the theatre. It’s also worth mentioning the free mince pies. This is a hugely moving, memorable and fresh version of an oft-told story and I really hope it comes back next year.

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Woyzeck

Thanks to the Old Vic’s £10 previews scheme, I get to see many more shows there than I would otherwise. Woyzeck was one of these. Adapted from Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1879 play by Jack Thorne, it starred John Boyega of Star Wars fame, alongside Sarah Greene as his girlfriend Marie and Nancy Carroll as the wife of a senior officer.

Set in Cold War Germany at the time of the Berlin Wall, the soldier Woyzeck is unable to live in barracks as he is living unmarried with his girlfriend and their baby. He is struggling to find enough money to afford their flat, and the stress of this coupled with a traumatic childhood and hints of PTSD threatens to send him over the edge. The drug trial he’s enrolled on doesn’t help matters, either.

I must admit I wasn’t too impressed with this and wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. Boyega does the best he can with what he is given, but the whole thing is rather confused and, dare I say it, dull. Reviews have been fairly complimentary so I must have missed something. I’d like to see Boyega in something else, but this particular play isn’t a favourite.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I originally saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in 2011, starring Jamie Parker who would later go on to play Harry Potter in the Cursed Child play. Coincidentally, this 2017 production, marking 50 years since the play first premiered, stars another actor who has played Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, best known for his work in the film franchise.

Radcliffe plays Rosencrantz opposite Joshua McGuire’s Guildenstern, a pairing that works incredibly well as the two play off one another. Radcliffe’s innocent expressions and calm demeanour are the perfect foil for McGuire’s energy, and the two are hugely entertaining when they are on stage together. David Haig makes a great job of the Player King, but for me, by far the best parts of the play involved just the two protagonists, their verbal sparring, games, inherent confusion, and existential questions.

Tom Stoppard’s play propelled him into the limelight fifty years ago, and it’s not hard to see why. Cleverly focusing on two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it helps if you are familiar with that play but it isn’t essential. Watching this, comparisons arise with Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, as the two protagonists question their existence and ask themselves what they are supposed to be doing. Intelligent and entertaining, this is another positive for the Old Vic.

Art

I’m a huge fan of the Old Vic’s £10 preview offer, which means I’ve been able to see more of their shows this year than I might otherwise have been able to. I took advantage of the offer to see Art, a play by Yasmina Reza (translated into English by Christopher Hampton) that uses modern art to explore the dynamics of friendship. The play, which originally premiered in 1994, hasn’t dated in the intervening period. This revival is directed by Old Vic artistic director, Matthew Warchus.

Serge (Rufus Sewell) has bought a new painting: a very modern white canvas that his close friend Marc (Paul Ritter) cannot see any merit in. This difference of opinion leads to some spirited – and very funny – discussions, especially when their friend Yvan (Tim Key), who has his own problems with his forthcoming marriage, is unwillingly drawn into the altercation.

In one way the play is about, well, art – is modern art like Serge’s new painting any good or not? – but on another, deeper level it is about friendship and whether it can survive such difference of opinion. It is extremely funny, too, with Rufus Sewell superb as the art-loving Serge and Paul Ritter excellent as his more traditional friend, as well as Tim Key often stealing the show as their downtrodden friend Yvan. Definitely worth seeing.

King Lear

King Lear is a difficult play for me. I’ve seen several productions and none of them have wholly clicked for me, although several have come close, not least the recent RSC production in Stratford.

Sadly, this King Lear is not one of those productions. Directed by Deborah Warner, it stars Glenda Jackson, newly out of retirement, and in fairness her performance is probably the best thing about the production, being nuanced, strong and at the same time full of frailty. I wasn’t hugely convinced by any of the other performances, though it didn’t help that Lear’s daughters looked more like grandmother, mother and granddaughter than three sisters. Nothing about the production really grabbed me: the staging was bland and uninspired, except for the storm scene which really was quite impressive.

Sometimes it’s the productions we look forward to the most that are the most disappointing. Sadly, that was the case here.

Groundhog Day

I saw Groundhog Day, the new musical from lyricist/composer Tim Minchin and book writer Danny Rubin, recently. I’ve never seen the film and I’d assumed it was a comedy, but the production – directed by Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus – was a lot darker (at least in the second half) and had much more depth than I’d expected.

I started off thinking that I wasn’t going to like the show. During the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it was going to be a kind of soppy sentimental romcom. By the interval it had grown on me and I thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad”. Act II blew me away. The songs were better, the plot was tighter and there just seemed to be more depth to it. Even though we see the same day repeated numerous times the show never gets boring, which impressed me.

When we initially meet Phil he is a rude, selfish, sarcastic asshole, but we see him grow and develop throughout the show, going from gleefully don’t-carish to despairingly suicidal before finding peace and gaining a greater understanding of himself and others. The whole show hinges on Phil’s character development and a lead actor could make or break it. Luckily Andy Karl is brilliant, very funny and able to convey his character’s feelings extremely well.

As the whole show takes place over the course of one day, there isn’t really room for any “character development” other than Phil’s because we’re only seeing one day in their lives, as opposed to many, many days in Phil’s life. Interest in the other characters comes mainly from Phil’s perception of them and how it changes over time. An exception to this is the song “Being Nancy” which I loved – both the song itself and what it says about characters and how they are portrayed on stage (particularly female characters).

This song also serves to emphasise how the “Groundhog Day” phenomenon isn’t just something that actually happens to Phil, it’s a metaphor for how many people live, repeating the same thing day in day out, consciously or unconsciously. I found the ending very satisfying: Phil has really grown as a person and I ultimately found the show uplifting and full of hope, a reminder that it’s important to care about others and life is more satisfying when you can form meaningful relationships with other people.

I would like to see this show again, if possible, and I would like a cast recording, too – I didn’t exactly come out humming any of the songs (something I rarely do anyway after just one listen/viewing) but there were several which I think could really grow on me. My favourite new musical of the year so far, and a contender for one of my favourite shows of 2016.

The Caretaker

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Harold Pinter. I keep going to see his plays, so I must find something of value in them: but at the same time, his work somewhat bewilders me. The Caretaker, currently playing at the Old Vic, is no exception, though there was enough to intrigue me and make me glad that I had booked. This is despite the extremely long running time, exacerbated by two intervals, which I’m not entirely convinced were needed.

The play is set in the attic of a decrepit old house, where Aston, who is supposed to be doing up the house for his brother, is living. One day he brings home a bedraggled old tramp, Davies, who ends up staying for longer than he had anticipated. Adding to the dynamic, the other brother enters the fray, leading to antagonism between all three characters.

Performances are fine all round: there are shades of Peter Pettigrew in Timothy Spall’s Davies, who manages to be both immensely repulsive and highly engaging. Daniel Mays plays Aston, a quiet character with hidden depths: his speech at the close of Act 2, about his experiences undergoing psychiatric treatment, is deeply moving. George MacKay, who normally plays very different characters, impresses as the sharp, fast-talking Mick: you sense his violent nature under the surface.

Despite the fact that nothing much seems to happen, the play is compelling; the important thing is the dynamic between the characters and how they change and develop throughout. What they all have in common is procrastination: Davies constantly talks about going to Sidcup (where his documents are, supposedly), Aston is meant to be doing up the house but rarely manages anything; Mick talks constantly about his other projects but they never seem to come to fruition.

I can’t say I’m any the wiser when it comes to Pinter, but I still think The Caretaker was a valuable experience, and it’s also the chance to see three fine actors deliver superb performances.