Ink

Another night out at the theatre, another play by James Graham – does the man ever stop writing? This particular play premiered at the Almeida Theatre earlier in the year, directed by Rupert Goold, before transferring to the Duke of York’s. Ink follows the rise of the Sun newspaper from 1969, when it was purchased by an up-and-coming Australian businessman named Rupert Murdoch, and the following year, when editor Larry Lamb and his hastily-assembled team sought to dramatically increase sales, changing journalism forever – for better or worse.

Seeing the play from a twenty-first century perspective, I found myself willing the paper to fail, even as I knew it was going to succeed. Having said that, Graham’s storytelling skills ensured I remained interested in the journey itself. The initial struggles faced by Lamb and his fellow journalists, in a Fleet Street bound by tradition, to give the people something new shouldn’t be underestimated. The first half of the play sees Lamb recruit his team and follows their efforts to establish themselves as players in the market.

I preferred the second half, which threw up plenty of moral and ethical questions. In particular it covered the kidnap of Muriel McKay, the wife of Sun deputy chairman Alick McKay (which I went home and read up on Wikipedia), and whether the Sun’s focus on this story – to raise awareness and help get her back, but also to increase sales – hastened its tragic end. We also witness the introduction of Page 3 girls in a desperate attempt to increase sales.

Richard Coyle gives a superb performance as Larry Lamb, the gruff Yorkshireman from the old school of journalism who turns out to be capable of almost anything to get a story and increase the sales of his paper. Bertie Carvel is astonishing as Rupert Murdoch, a balanced portrayal of a man aiming to upset the establishment who is still capable of being shocked by what his editor is willing to do – at least until he sees the sales figures. If I didn’t know what he would go on to be in the twenty-first century, I could almost respect him.

Bunny Christie’s set is a stunning and effective pile of artfully arranged desks, and the music and clothing sets you firmly in the late sixties.

I didn’t feel the unequivocal love for this play I felt for Labour of Love, probably because I’m much more ambivalent about the subject matter. Still, it’s a superb piece of playwriting and impeccably performed by all involved.

Advertisements

Richard III

The Almeida’s Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes, was one of this year’s hot tickets, worth braving the theatre’s less-than-brilliant website to be sure of grabbing a ticket. Was it worth it? Well, yes, I thought. Fiennes gives a strong performance as a mad, manic king, commanding the stage and sending shivers down the spine of any audience member lucky – or unlucky – enough to catch his eye. His Richard is someone who revels in his evil, taking revenge for the way in which he has been treated thanks to his hunched back (Fiennes’ back must be agony, surely, by the end of the performance, judging by the way he holds it crooked all evening). As his murderous tally grows larger, skulls light up one by one at the back of the auditorium (the Almeida’s brick wall), eventually forming the constellation of the Boar (which was Richard’s emblem).

Rupert Goold’s production begins with the recent excavation of Richard’s body in a Leicester car park, before the archaeologists and their spotlights back away to reveal the living king, a strong conceit spoiled by the fact that the cast wear modern suits and mobile phones. Not that this is a problem in itself, but the modern costume and the play’s beginning seemed to belong in two different productions. Still, it’s particularly amusing to watch Lord Hastings (Globe regular James Garnon) grow increasingly panicked at the content of the texts he receives on his smartphone.

Among the rest of the strong supporting cast, Joanna Vanderham does a good job as Richard’s unlucky queen Anne, and Vanessa Redgrave impresses as the older Queen Margaret in a quiet but impressionable portrayal of someone who has lost everything.

A memorable production, this is another example of what the Almeida does well: reinvigorated classics that always offer something new.

Medea

I finally completed my Almeida Greeks trilogy when I saw Rupert Goold’s new production of Medea. Like the two previous plays in the season, it’s a fairly radical new version of Euripides’ classic; a loose adaptation rather than a close interpretation. Novelist Rachel Cusk has set her version in the modern day: Medea, played with firm intensity by Kate Fleetwood, is a writer devastated by her husband’s betrayal. As he plans a future with his new, younger lover, she is left to look after their two young children alone, forced to move out of their home and facing criticism on all sides.

At its heart, the play is about one woman’s suffering, and Cusk does a good job of allowing us to empathise with Medea. The play opens with her in the middle of the stage, standing silently, hair over her face, as her parents, sitting on either side of her, comment harshly on events and seem to suggest that Medea is in some way responsible. In some respects it has a distinctly feminist slant, as Cusk suggests that men leave their women to bring up the children and run off when they get bored, but the women don’t get off lightly either, with the chorus of yummy mummies repulsive in their smug judgement of Medea.

I was particularly impressed with the child actors, who were painfully believable in their behaviour: the youngest railing against the injustice of having to leave his big house, declaring “I hate you!” to his mother; the eldest, more aware of his mother’s feelings, trying to quench his little brother’s moaning and declaring support for his mum.

The play did seem to lose its way during the last twenty minutes or so, with a confusing explanation from a dual-natured Messenger as to what happened next. However, the final revelation was, to me, entirely unexpected yet totally in keeping with what had gone before.

While far from perfect, this play got me thinking about the roles of men and women – society’s pressures on women in particular – as well as the profound effect emotional upheaval has on children. I’m glad I completed my Greek trilogy.

Made in Dagenham

Lured to the Adelphi Theatre by a Time Out cheap ticket offer, I settled down to watch Made in Dagenham earlier in the year than I had planned. I’d read mixed reviews, so wasn’t sure what to expect: perhaps a mildly amusing show that would pass a couple of hours pleasantly enough. In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I had expected to.

Based on the 2010 film, the show, directed by Rupert Goold, is the story of the female machinists at Ford whose strike in 1968 paved the way for equal pay legislation. In some respects, it is similar to Billy Elliot, though the comedy is broader.

Because the most striking thing about this musical is how funny it is. From the song lyrics to the larger-than-life characters, the show is a laugh-out-loud experience from start to finish, despite the serious subject matter. This doesn’t trivialise the issues at stake however – there are several quieter moments and characters who are passionate about the cause for which they fight.

Gemma Arterton stars as Rita and does a superb job, lighting up the stage with her presence and showing off a surprisingly good singing voice. Her co-stars Sophie Isaacs and Sophie-Louise Dann also do a brilliant job, the latter, as Transport Secretary Barbara Castle, bringing the house down with her big song. Mark Hadfield is very funny as the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in a performance worthy of Monty Python.

As Rita’s husband, Adrian Der Gregorian doesn’t have a particularly likeable character to play but he has a strong singing voice and his performance is good. Some of the characters are a tad stereotyped and caricatured, but this does fit in with the general tone of the show and isn’t particularly out of place.

The creative team have assembled a first-class show: lyrics by Richard Thomas and a script by Richard Bean provide the laughs, while composer David Arnold has contributed several catchy, Sixties sound-a-like tunes: Act One closer ‘Everybody Out’ and grand finale ‘Stand Up’ are highlights. Bunny Christie’s design is clever and inventive, with floral motifs and a backdrop of Airfix models evoking the era and the place in which the show is set.

It’s a shame that the show doesn’t seem to be doing too well – perhaps overseas tourists won’t get the references or the humour but there is something here for all Brits who love a feelgood homegrown musical.

Charles III

Billed as a ‘future history play’, Charles III  – written by Mike Bartlett and directed by Rupert Goold – is an exciting take on what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies and Prince Charles becomes king. Challenging, provocative and playful, it is one of the best new plays I have seen in a while.

After years in waiting, Charles finally has power, but without giving too much away, the real extent of his power and how he is able to wield it is the focus of the play. I found Charles to be a sympathetic character – his heart is in the right place, and his actions are understandable on one level, even if they are wrong and ill-advised on another. Tim Pigott-Smith’s performance is superb, by turns regal, awkward and conflicted. He is ably supported by a strong cast, notably Oliver Chris as Prince William and Lydia Wilson as Kate, whose character’s journey over the course of the play was one of the most enjoyable for me.

Bartlett took the brave decision to pen Charles III largely in blank verse, in a nod to Shakespeare and his history plays. Other Shakespearean touches are evident: Prince Harry’s partying is reminiscent of Prince Hal’s raucous nights at the Boar’s Head, while the ghost of Princess Diana turns up at odd moments. These aspects mean that the play gives a nod to the past – but others, such as the issues surrounding privacy and the press, are entirely contemporary.

This superb play, which manages to be both funny and surprisingly moving, asks important questions about the nature of royal authority and the relevance of the monarchy to the modern age. It should appeal to royalists, republicans and everyone in between, and I urge you to go and see it once it transfers to the Wyndham’s Theatre later this year.

American Psycho

This new musical by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Duncan Sheik, currently playing at the Almeida Theatre, has to be one of the most bizarre musical ventures of recent years. Based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by Rupert Goold, it has proved hugely popular, largely thanks to the presence of former Doctor Who star Matt Smith in the role of Patrick Bateman. But this production, developed by acclaimed theatre company Headlong, has much more than just a TV star to recommend it.

I’m used to seeing more classic and traditional theatre productions on the Almeida stage, so the Eighties-inspired stark white set used for this production was a revelation. I loved the two revolves that brought actors and props on and off the stage, and the flashing lights that turned the place into a disco. The props all fitted in marvellously – I particularly loved the brick of a mobile phone, and the retro Sony Walkman.

Easton Ellis’ book is a dark and wickedly witty satire on corporate greed, and the black humour translates surprisingly well to the stage. During the opener, our antihero Bateman sings about being clean – physically he may be, thanks to an assortment of designer shower products and an expensive suit, but morally he is anything but. One of the funniest songs of the night is sung by Patrick and his friends as they compare business cards – emblems of their status and success. Another highlight is an ode to designer fashion, referencing brands like Gucci. The production is slick and stylish, and by and large the violence and gore is stylised and suggested.

It is apparent that Matt Smith cannot sing, but somehow this doesn’t really matter. His rather flat delivery works well considering his character’s psychopathic nature, and his voice doesn’t need to carry the show in the way, for example, the actor playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables needs to. Acting-wise, Smith is fantastic – cold, arrogant and completely believable as the killer Bateman, suggesting an amoral character with an emotional vacuum.

The rest of the cast shine, too, particularly Susannah Fielding as Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn and Ben Aldridge as his rival Paul Owen. The most talented singer is Cassandra Compton, who stands out in the role of Jean, Bateman’s secretary, the most sympathetic in the show. Her delivery of the most traditionally ‘musical theatre’ number in the show, a wistful love song, is outstanding. Most of the music, a mixture of existing contemporary songs by the likes of the Human League and New Order and new songs, is heavily influenced by Eighties sounds, a stark contrast to most musicals today. Like the show as a whole, the songs are witty and clever – I think they would repay repeated listening, for the lyrics as much as the tunes.

This is an outstanding new musical, refreshing, dangerous and different. I would be very surprised indeed if it did not transfer to the West End.

The Effect

“If your brain was simple enough to understand, you’d be too simple to understand it”. The Effect, written by Lucy Prebble and directed by Rupert Goold (who met with success a few years ago with Enron), is a thoughtful and intelligent play about love, depression and neuroscience. Performed by four actors in the National Theatre’s intimate Cottesloe auditorium, the production is absorbing, moving and funny by turns.

Tris and Connie are two of the guinea pigs selected to take part in a (paid) pharmaceutical drug trial. The drug is an antidepressant and the participants have been chosen because they do not suffer from depression. The play follows the burgeoning relationship between the outgoing and spontaneous Tris (an appealing Jonjo O’Neill) and the more self-contained, cautious Connie (an excellent Billie Piper): what the two of them, and the audience, don’t know is whether their growing love is real or an artificial product of the medication they are taking.

Monitoring the trial is a psychiatrist, Lorna (superbly played by Anastasia Hille), whose edgily tense mannerisms suggest a closer relationship to her subject matter than she would care to admit. She is being supervised by another doctor, Toby (the very good Tom Goodman-Hill), whose relationship with her goes back further than the beginning of the play. Their contrasting viewpoints – Toby believes passionately in the efficacy of antidepressants, Lorna feels that depressed people see the world as it truly is – provide some of the most interesting dialogue in the play. What do we really know about neuroscience? Is depression the modern-day equivalent of the four humours theory? Do antidepressants really work or are they a placebo, a ploy concocted by the pharmaceutical companies? Are feelings prompted by medication ‘real’, or are they simply artificial products of the chemicals they contain?

The Effect is a challenging, funny and engrossing play that poses difficult questions and doesn’t offer any easy answers. Whether you have a personal interest in the subject matter or not, this production is certainly worth seeing.