A Christmas Carol – The Old Vic

In many ways it must be a daunting task trying to think of an original idea to tell such a well known story as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but Jack Thorne has managed it excellently for this new adaptation at the Old Vic over Christmas.

Arriving at the theatre, audience members are offered a mince pie and a satsuma by costumed actors which is a lovely touch to set the mood. The stage is set in the rounds, and the set is very minimum throughout, with four door frames onstage and lots of lanterns above as the main design.

As for the story, there are a few changes and additions. The three ghosts are all female, all in some ways echoes of Scrooge’s sister, Little Fan. None are frightening; Marley’s ghost is the only slightly scary apparition, who walks bound in chains along a walkway from the back of the stalls towards Scrooge. As well as developing the characterisation of Fan, there is also more emphasis than usual on Scrooge’s childhood, particularly his relationship with his father, who was cruel and drove the family into debt. We also see more of Scrooge’s relationship with his first love, Belle.

Rhys Ifans is a fantastic Scrooge, and his transformation from bitter and angry to forgiving and caring is very moving at times, particularly during a scene where he sees his younger self sat on his coffin. His delight when he awakes on Christmas morning is wonderfully atmospheric when he involves the audience in transferring and collecting the food to take to the Cratchits’ house.

The use of music throughout the production is fantastic, showing that the ‘carol’ element of the title is often forgotten. There is a small group of musicians and the actors sing, but the most effective music comes from the handbells used by the entire cast, particularly at the end.

A magical production that has captured the spirit of Christmas. Wonderful!

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The Cherry Orchard – Sherman Theatre

The Cherry Orchard at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff was not a traditional production using Chekhov’s words, but rather a reimagining by Gary Owen who had updated the script and moved the setting to Pembrokeshire in 1982, at the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership and just before the Falklands War. This was my first time seeing The Cherry Orchard, so I cannot make any comparisons with the original writing.

Bloumfield, a large country house, is in financial trouble and is in danger of repossession. The family have reconvened at the house to try and work out what the future holds for the house and for them. Denise Black was fantastic as the lead character, Rainey the mother, and was very intense. There were no weak links in the rest of the cast with regards to performances, and I particularly liked Alexandria Riley as Dottie the housekeeper. I did feel however that Morfydd Clarke’s accent stood out as being much posher than the rest of her family which didn’t really gel, and I thought that Richard Mylan’s character as a socialist questioning class inequality could have been developed further.

This production emphasised how the ghosts of the pasts can affect people, and how different individuals deal with grief. The class difference was evident when Dottie explains that when her father died she just had to carry on, while Rainey began to drink herself to a stupor. Despite these heavy themes, the play was full of witty dialogue and the evening sped by. Very glad to have seen it.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery – Criterion Theatre

Having loved both of Mischief Theatre’s previous productions, The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I was very excited to catch their newest show. This was immediately different to its predecessors, as rather than watching Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society performing, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a more traditional farce.

Set in the United States, it is the story of a diamond heist, which is being kept at the Minneapolis City Bank. As you’d expect from a farce, there was plenty of slapstick comedy but there was also lots of clever wordplay. It was fast paced, silly and brilliant.

The Wipers Times – Cardiff New Theatre

The Wipers Times by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman is based on the incredible true story of a group of officers who found a printing press in the ruins of a bombed building in Ypres during the First World War. Captain Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) decided to staring printing a satirical newspaper for the troops called The Wipers Times, the name coming from the mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’ by British soldiers. It was hugely successful and managed to run for two years despite the horrors of the war and disapproval from higher ranks.

Inspired by the real newspaper (Ian Hislop joked in the post-show talk that 99% of the script was from the original papers!) the play is very funny, and includes songs in the style of music hall renditions, poems, adverts and sketches. A lot of the cast played several characters and were brilliant and full of energy. It is natural that a lot of literature about the war emphasises the terror, and rightly so, but as Hislop said after the performance The Wipers Times truly showed what soldiers thought and felt during the battles, as many of the war poems which are so well known today were actually written after the war.

The most important result of Hislop and Newman’s discovery of The Wipers Times must be that they managed to secure obituaries for Roberts and Pearson in The Times. However, this play is also a fantastic tribute to their creation, and is very uplifting.

North by Northwest – Theatre Royal Bath

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, North by Northwest is a playful, clever and funny adaptation.

Roger Thornhill (Jonathan Watton), a successful advertising executive, is abducted by thugs who believe that he is a man called George Kaplan. What follows is a cat and mouse game which includes spies, and chases over Mount Rushmore and through corn fields by a plane.

What made this production so clever was the stage effects. On both sides of the stage there were tables with miniature models and a camera. Members of the company, fully visible to the audience, would move the models and the images were projected on the back of the stage. This was how the plane chase and Mount Rushmore were shown, and it was extremely clever and very funny.

I haven’t seen the original film so I cannot compare, but this was a thrilling and hugely enjoyable production with a charismatic leading actor. It deserves to transfer to the West End.

Angels in America (NT Live)

I confess I had never heard of Angels in America by Tony Kushner before the National Theatre production was announced, but after reading the hype around it I decided to see what all the fuss was about at the NT Live screenings.

It is in many ways a difficult play to describe, but put simply it is the story of 5 characters living in New York in the mid 1980s during the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration. It explores a myriad of themes, including life, death, love, sex, heaven and hell. The fear and uncertainty surrounding AIDS and homosexuality in entrenched throughout the play and shown through the experiences of many characters. Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) rejects the label of homosexuality as he states that homosexuals have no ‘clout’. The married Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) is unable to accept that he may be gay, and Louis (James McArdle) cannot cope with supporting his longterm partner Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) when he is diagnosed with AIDS, and leaves him. Although thankfully in many ways things have changed for the better for gay people and those living with HIV, but unfortunately the fact that there is a Republican administration in the White House at the moment who has recently banned transgender people from serving in the military means that the play is still relevant today, not least because Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s legal adviser.

The production itself was fantastic. All of the actors’ performances were stellar, particularly Andrew Garfield. Nathan Lane also managed to make me feel slight sympathy for such a detestable character. I also thought the staging was great, especially the revolve when switching scenes, and when the set was pulled back during one of Harper’s (Denise Gough) hallucinations to reveal the huge Lyttleton stage. The way the angel was moved around the set by ‘phantoms’ was also very clever.

As for the play itself, I’m unsure. There were things I loved about it but others I’m undecided about. I’m sure in a way the fact that the play has such a hype around it played against it because I was expecting to be completely blown away. First of all I felt it was too long, although in fairness to this production it did not feel long at all when I was watching. However, during some scenes I did wonder what they were adding to the play, such as the opening of Perestroika (part 2) with the oldest living Bolshevik. I was also confused by the angels, and especially felt that Prior’s angel’s explanation of how God abandoned them was explained clearly enough.

However, it is a play that has stayed with me and I have found myself thinking about it a lot after seeing it. I have also enjoyed listening to some of the National Theatre’s podcasts with some of the cast and the director, Marianne Elliot. I definitely would like to read it, as being such a wordy play it was easy to miss some things when watching. The play itself may not have blown me away, but the production and performances have meant that in some ways it has stayed at the forefront of my mind for a while. I’m definitely glad that I went to see it.

 

Jane Eyre – Wales Millennium Centre

I first saw this National Theatre production of Jane Eyre at an NT Live screening and I enjoyed it immensely, so when I saw that the national tour was coming to Cardiff I knew I wanted to see it again ‘properly’ in a theatre rather than a cinema.

Although I knew what to expect this time it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The set isn’t what you’d expect for a production of Jane Eyre at all. It’s fairly bare, with many climbing frames, ladders and wooden planks which are used extremely effectively to convey the different locations as well as Jane’s varying emotions. I also liked the soundtrack which included some original music but also some contemporary songs such as Mad About the Boy and Crazy.

The cast is small with everyone apart from Jane (Nadia Clifford) playing multiple characters including Mr Rochester’s dog, Pilot. All the performances were strong and convincing, with some particularly quick role changes.

It’s a funny and emotional production, which stays very close to the novel by Charlotte Bronte, and I love that some dialogue from the novel was used. I do feel however that it is too long. I know that when it was originally performed at the Bristol Old Vic that it was in two parts, which were cut down to one part before going to the National Theatre, but I feel some further small cuts would have been beneficial, as the first half in particular is very long. However, this was an innovative and engaging production and I’m glad I saw it for the second time.

Racing Demon – Theatre Royal, Bath

Racing Demon is a play by David Hare about an inner London team of clergy. They include the Reverend Lionel Espy (David Haig), a traditional, likeable but slightly noncommittal priest who is having a crisis of faith, and whose job is under threat by the bishop of Southwark (Anthony Calf), Tony Ferris (Paapa Essiedu), a newly ordained and well-meaning priest with more evangelical ideas about faith and religion, and gay Harry Henderson (Ian Gelder).

The play had a good combination of humour and drama, and the performances by the three leads were strong and emotional at times. Although the play was written in 1990 many of its themes still resonated, such as how the church can stay relevant as society changes and develops.

Aladdin – Prince Edward Theatre

Based on the 1992 Disney film, Aladdin is a fun filled show with great music. I have a soft spot for the film version as it’s one of the first films I ever saw in the cinema, and may have had a small crush on Aladdin too…! There have naturally been some changes to the film in the stage adaptation but none that were too much of a disappointment. Abu the monkey has been replaced by three friends, as has Rajah the tiger. These changes worked well, and Aladdin’s friends in particular provided some comedic moments. Some new songs have also been added, and I especially liked Proud of your Boy and High Adventure.

Without a doubt, the best thing about the show is the Genie, played by Trevor Dion Nicholas, who was the understudy on Broadway. Robin Williams could not be a tougher act to follow but he succeeded in making the role his own while keeping just enough of Williams’ mannerisms. The staging was also very impressive, particularly in the Cave of Wonders and with the flying carpet during A Whole New World.

My small criticism of the show is that it occasionally felt a little similar to panto when Jafar (Don Gallagher) and Iago (Nick Cavaliere) (also a human rather than a parrot) were on stage. This was the fault of the production rather than the performances. I wasn’t sure of Jade Ewen’s acting as Jasmine and I felt she sang A Whole New World a little too much like a popstar rather than a musical theatre performer. These are only small criticisms however, and although I don’t think it’s as good a show as The Lion King and Mary Poppins, I still very much enjoyed it.

 

The Graduate – Cardiff New Theatre

I have never watched the film version of The Graduate so I saw this play with only a very general idea of the plot. Benjamin Braddock (Jack Monaghan) has just graduated from college and is living with his parents. He isn’t sure what he wants to do with his life and isn’t impressed by his parents ideas for his future. During a party at home, he is seduced by a friend of his parents, Mrs Robinson (Catherine McCormack), who is also disillusioned with her life.

The set was fairly simple but conveyed 1960s America well, and projections were also used effectively. The soundtrack also helped to convey the period, with plenty of Simon and Garfunkel! All the performances were good but I found the character of Mrs Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Emma Curtis) quite unlikeable, and I’m not sure whether I was supposed to do so! I also didn’t think there was a lot of chemistry between the leads, but overall I enjoyed the production and I will definitely be watching the film soon.