The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

After not really loving Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I wasn’t sure whether to bother with Edward Albee’s other current West End play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. However, along with a friend I queued up for a bargainous £5 day ticket (it’s so cheap because the stage is so high, but I’m quite tall so this wasn’t so much of a problem for me).

The play was fairly shocking when it was first performed (as recently as 2002), and it’s pretty shocking now, dealing with the taboo subject of bestiality. Successful, happily married architect Martin has fallen in love with a goat. As first his friend, then his wife Stevie and son Billy discover his secret, events move onto a tragic conclusion. The play is reminiscent of Greek tragedy, and has a similar kind of impact.

To handle a play like this you need some pretty good actors, and I thought Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo were both excellent in their roles. In particular Lewis brought sympathy to his extremely challenging role, inviting the audience’s sympathy. I was also impressed with newcomer Archie Madekwe as the pair’s son.

I was very impressed by The Goat and I’m glad I made the effort to see it.

The Libertine

I saw the 2004 film The Libertine at university, during the height of my Johnny Depp crush. I always knew it was based on a play, but have never had the chance to see it until now. This production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket stars Dominic Cooper and is directed by Terry Johnson.

Stephen Jeffreys’ play is based on the life of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, whose scandalous existence was the stuff of legend in his own time and whose sharp, satirical and extremely bawdy verse survives to this day. He was the original “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, over a century before Byron was even born. This play follows his life from the peak of his status to his sad and untimely death from syphilis, as he seduces women, antagonises the king and helps to change the face of theatre.

Cooper gives a good performance, showing us the intelligence behind Rochester’s licentious behaviour. There are memorable and entertaining moments: I don’t think I am likely to see a dance involving giant dildos again, for example. However, this is one instance where I definitely preferred the film to the play, and I say that very rarely.

How the Other Half Loves

Prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn is seeing another of his plays revived in London: this time it’s the turn of 1971 classic How the Other Half Loves, the story of two couples, the Fosters and the Phillips, in troubled marriages. Mrs Foster and Mr Phillips have been having an affair, and use another couple, the Featherstones, as an excuse. When the Fosters and the Phillips end up inviting the Featherstones to dinner on consecutive nights, chaos ensues as desperate measures are taken to ensure secrets are kept.

The strength of the play is the way in which Ayckbourn weaves time together, so the dinner parties which take place on different nights actually happen simultaneously on stage. I admire his skill a great deal, as he manages to pull off an incredibly complex feat successfully. On the down side, it does take a while to build up to this superlative scene and I thought the play overall was a bit long. I liked the set, which managed to convey both houses at once through the use of opposing colour schemes.

I must admit I didn’t find the central affair of the piece, between Jenny Seagrove’s Fiona and Jason Merrells’ Bob, very convincing. However, I really liked Nicholas Le Provost’s performance as Frank: he had all the best lines (I’m going to call toilet roll “bathroom stationery” from now on), and I also liked Tamsin Outhwaite as Bob’s wife Teresa, a worn-out new mother.

Considering the time in which it was written, the play is hardly a bastion of feminism and to be fair I wouldn’t expect it to be. Having said that, I was impressed with Gillian Wright’s character Mary Featherstone who, after being pushed around by her husband (Matthew Cottle’s William) for the duration of the play, eventually puts her foot down. I would have liked her to go further, to be honest, but even so I was inwardly cheering.

In some ways, this is a dated and old-fashioned play, but it’s still worth seeing for its clever structure. I did find it genuinely entertaining.

Bad Jews

Bad Jews began life in the UK at the Ustinov Studio in Bath before transferring to London’s St James Theatre. It later embarked on a national tour and a return to the West End at the Haymarket Theatre. I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about, and attended a Saturday matinee.

The comedy, written by Joshua Harmon, is set in a small New York flat in which a young Jewish man, Jonah, is living; he is visited by his cousin Daphna and brother Liam who arrives with his (non-Jewish) girlfriend Melody in tow. The trio’s grandfather has just died, and the fate of a family heirloom is at stake. Which grandchild is most deserving of it?

The play is a fascinating one as it raises questions about family, religion, and cultural meaning. It asks who really owns culture, and to what extent Jewishness – and by extension any religious or racial identity – can define a person. The particular artefact in question has different significance for each member of the family: ultra-orthodox Daphna sees it as a profound emblem of faith, while besotted Liam sees it as representative of love, in particular the relationship of his grandparents. I personally found my own sympathies moving from one character to another throughout the play.

The piece is incisive and funny, making sharp observations about religion, culture and identity. I had originally been slightly put off by the play’s title, wondering if it would only have meaning for Jewish people. This wasn’t the case though: while Jewish identity is important to the piece – one of the reasons for the artefact’s significance is that it played a part in the Holocaust – the play’s exploration of culture, heritage and identity is relevant to anyone and the exploration of family dynamics is honest and rings true, though it has obviously been exaggerated for comic effect.

The play has a fine cast of four: I particularly liked Ailsa Joy as the super-religious Daphna, who managed to be both intensely irritating and hugely sympathetic. The others – Ilan Goodman as Liam, Jos Slovick as Jonah and Antonia Kinlay as Melody – also gave very good performances.

I’m glad I finally took the chance to go and see this play: it was hugely funny but also massively thought-provoking, and the end shocked me.

The Elephant Man

Joseph (John) Merrick, who lived during the late nineteenth century, gained fame and notoriety for his deformities (the causes of which are still unconfirmed), spending several years as an exhibit in London. When he died at the young age of twenty-seven, he was popular in London society, even having received a visit from Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and had been living in the London Hospital for several years.

The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s play about Merrick, debuted in 1979, and is revived here by Scott Ellis in a hit production that comes to London from Broadway. Key to its popularity is the presence of Hollywood star Bradley Cooper in the title role. Yet his casting is not just a cynical move by producers to sell more tickets – Cooper is genuinely good in the role, his strong performance the best thing about an otherwise workmanlike play. He performs without the use of prosthetics or makeup, conveying Merrick’s disabilities with his physical performance: an admirable feat.

Patricia Clarkson is good as the woman who befriends Merrick and cares for him, but some of the other performances are average, and the accents are all over the place. There is no real tension in the piece, which tells the story of Merrick from young adulthood to his death. Still, in its account of a disadvantaged but intelligent and dignified human being and his struggle to be accepted, it is admirable.

Harvey

This seems to be my week for seeing shows that were made into famous films that I’ve never got round to watching. This time it’s the turn of Harvey, Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winner that was made into a 1950 film starring James Stewart. It’s probably just as well I’ve never seen the film, as I’m sure no star actor could live up to Stewart. Seen on its own terms, I did enjoy the play, which I saw thanks to Official Theatre.

Socialite Veta and her daughter Myrtle May are reluctant to entertain guests at their lavish home in case any of them run into Veta’s brother, Elwood P. Dowd. Affable and charming, Dowd has just one, rather large, problem – he is friends with a giant (six feet, three-and-a-half inches) rabbit named Harvey, and has a propensity to introduce his invisible friend to unsuspecting guests. At the end of her tether, Veta finally decides that her brother must be locked up, but when she tries to explain things to the sanatorium doctor he decides that she is the one who needs treatment. Cue a frantic chase around town as the head doctor and his assistants try to find Dowd, who has wandered off along with Harvey.

Directed by Lindsay Posner, with a lavish and beautifully designed set by Peter McKintosh, the play exudes period charm and there is never any real sense of threat. Apparently Chase wrote the play to calm and reassure audiences in the shadow of the Second World War, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was a much darker play here waiting to get out (something like Donnie Darko perhaps?) Nevertheless, taken on its own terms it is an appealing piece.

James Dreyfus plays Elwood P. Dowd with charm and appeal. He invests the character with warmth and an interest in everyone around him. Seeming perfectly “normal” except for the business of the invisible rabbit, his character has a relaxed approach to life that the other characters could learn from (and many of them do). Maureen Lipman displays bite and excellent comic timing in her role as Veta, combining a selfish preoccupation for her social standing with genuine concern for her troubled brother. Ingrid Oliver is also good in her role as the less likeable Myrtle May: like Veta she is worried about her social position, but unlike her she shows no real concern for her uncle’s welfare. There are strong performances too from David Bamber as the head doctor, Chumney, Jack Hawkins as his junior, Sanderson, and Sally Scott as nurse Ruth Kelly.

I thought that some parts of the play were a little slow, but other scenes upped the pace and were very funny. Overall, while Harvey does not break new ground or revolutionise theatre, it’s a gentle, warm play with strong performances which is well worth seeing.