Mini-review – Seminar – Hampstead Theater

October 17, 2014 by

Given how late in the run it is, there seems to be no point in reviewing Seminar … except it’s such a genuinely enjoyable show that I think it would be criminal to just resign it to pleasant memories rather than put in a good word and see if maybe I can help build the momentum that gets it a transfer. And, well, looking at the Hampstead website, there is actually some availability, and, hey, isn’t that why you’re here, to see if you should go see a show or not? And I’m saying you should, if you enjoy a comedy and maybe a bit of poking fun.

Seminar is set in a New York apartment rented by a spoiled rich girl who thinks that with a little bit more investment, she (and a three carefully selected others) could actually kick up her/their game enough to become “real” writers. The idea is to pool together a large sum of money and get nearly-private tutoring by “Leonard” (Roger Allam), a formerly famous writer now turned copy editor.

The comedy, it turns out, is far more than just listening to Leonard savage each one of their heartfelt piles of crap (we never get to hear a world of what’s been written, just his commentary, which is a blessing and does wonders for pacing); rather, the giggles come from the dynamic of the four group members over the course of the seminar. We’ve got blond, schlumpy Kate (Charity Wakefield), who doesn’t want to embrace now much less the future and can’t let go of the novel she’s been nursing along for six years; arrogant Douglas (Oliver Hembrough), who with his giant ego and constantly changing palette of pastel socks seems to be the only person who’s really going to make it as a writer; Martin (Bryan Dick), the guy who really seems to be along for the ride as he never shows his writing to anyone; and Izzy (Rebecca Grant), who thinks that sex is the way to success and seems to be riding it for all she can. Each of them has mixed amounts of respect (mostly lack of) for the other participants; each of them slowly starts to come apart; and as their mental landscapes disintegrate, the claws come out … and it gets really fun.

In the midst of the psychodrama, I found there were actually some really intelligent discussions about writing happening, which, given that I went with a fellow writer, went over really, really well (the Jack Kerouac bit just killed me). And there was also some decent advice given about making a career in the field. Hollywood writing? It’s used as an insult but pulling in cash actually isn’t as filthy a choice to make as the four kids try to tell each other. And there are a lot of things you can try to be, as a writer, that aren’t Being Nabokov but are still making a career. And one of them is being a Leonard. At the end, he tries to sell us on the magic, but it’s stagey and a bit unbelievable; a bit what you’d expect of a Hollywood writer, which is what I think the author of this play (Theresa Rebeck) is. But you know what? I don’t want to see Uncle Vanya or a Pinter play every night. Sometimes I just want to go to the theater and have a good time and laugh so loud that I piss off the people sitting in front of me. This is the kind of play Seminar is: two hours of nicely crafted fun that is exactly what an intelligent audience member wants – stimulating, well acted, and not too full of itself. Roger Allam: a bit too one-note (“asshole”), but full of charisma and excellent in the role. Snap up a ticket while you still can.

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 15th, 2014. Seminar continues through November 1st. Thanks to OughtToBeClowns’s Twitter feed for the heads up.)

Review – The Trial – Phillip Glass and Music Theatre Wales at Royal Opera House

October 15, 2014 by

I’m not a big opera fan, but I do really enjoy the music of Phillip Glass. So when I heard that his new opera … based on Franz Kafka’s classic novellette The Trial … was going to be at the small space at the Royal Opera House … well, it was a match made in heaven.

I wasn’t the only one to think that a dystopic cult novel and the American master of minimalism were the hottest opera ticket this fall … the production was sold out two months before it opened (and with stalls seats going for the fantastic price of £45, I say rightly so!). Fortunately it’s touring through November 10th so there are other chances to see it … Manchester, Cardiff, and Oxford being just a few of the venues that will host it. Now, the devoted will know that with the Royal Opera House, there are almost always a few returns on the day, so if you’re reading this in hope of getting a ticket to the London production, keep that browser open – it refreshes regularly and suddenly “SOLD OUT” becomes “BUY” … and there I was with two seats in row H in the stalls. Awesome!

So now that I’ve been, the question is: was it worth the bother? Did it meet the hype? Was it any good? I’m pleased to say, yes! (But I must caveat that this production hovered at the two hour mark …a fact which raised its value in my eyes.) Everything was stylized, with a stripped down set (iron frame bed, chairs, and table; eggshell walls broken only by seams of light and window-sized gaps), a monotone palette (that extended to the women’s hair), and a movement style that called to mind silent movies. A sense of claustrophobia was enhanced by the performers staying on the set or peeking in the windows when they weren’t part of a scene; you could never forget that Josef K was constantly being watched. And Glass’ music built like a storm surge, the pressure rising relentlessly as the trap slowly closed around our incredulous mouse. Innocence or guilt were not in question: there was simply no way to escape the conclusion of this bureaucratic machine.

Johnny Hereford was a wonderful Josef K; initially arrogant and unbelieving, at times passionate, finally resigned. All of the other performers were at least double cast and disguised well enough to move the story along despite it occasionally being clear we were watching the same person. But the narrative ruled the day, helped greatly by being performed in English. I was pulled in, and without a language barrier between myself and the sung word, the story became my world. It’s the best time I’ve had at the opera in years and I hope the rest of the performances meet with as much success as this run, in the deliciously intimate Linbury.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 15, 2014. It continues at the Linbury until October 18th, then goes on tour.)

Review – Damn Yankees – Theatrica Limited at Landor Theater

October 11, 2014 by

Growing up in the US, when I heard the title of this show I always assumed it was some kind of comedy about Northerners moving to the South. So typical of me, a non-sports-lover, to completely miss the thought that this might be a references to the New York Yankees baseball team! If you’re also completely in the dark, I’ll fill you in on the plot (in part to tempt you to make the time and travel investment): Damn Yankees is a 1955 Broadway musical – this is the golden age, people, when the very best stuff was being written – about a dumpy, middle-aged real estate agent who, in a moment of frustration, shouts, “I’d give my soul to see my team win the pennant!” In best style, this summons the devil (or some version thereof – he’s called Mr Applegate), who promptly transforms flabby Joe Boyd into super athlete Joe Hardy, a 20 ish young man with a winning smile and an even more winning hitting arm. He promises to have Joe be the man who takes his team to the top – with “the standard payment” (it’s not discussed in much detail). The rest of the show involves Joe trying to win over the team, its manager, and the nosy reporter Gloria while Mr Applegate, with a little help from she-demon Lola, tries to get Joe to give up on his escape clause. Comedy, baseball, hummable songs and unexpected mambo dancing ensue.

If you’re a regular reader, you must be going, “Webcowgirl! What’s up with ruining the ‘go in looking for surprises’ approach?” Although my normal approach to shows is to keep myself in the dark, this just isn’t true for musicals (or Shakespeare). This is a classic, a standard, and while there’s occasionally a show I won’t know, I have to be honest about the fact that I go in with expectations. I am excited to see how people will make the old shows fresh again. And I enjoy sitting in a room full of people singing their hearts out beautifully. It’s my guilty pleasure, only I don’t feel guilty about it.

Guilt isn’t the kind of feeling that would come to mind with Damn Yankees anyway, as it’s really just a giant ball of positivity with little drizzles of sauciness to make it fun. The songs combine soaring vocals with solid feeling and character development, getting you behind the perennial losers that make up The Washington Senators (a team long wiped off of the American baseball map) with “Heart,” making you laugh with blue balls anthem “The Game” (surprisingly racy for the time!), and just flat out entertaining you with “Two Lost Souls.” The theme of the devil and his seductive associate allows for a bunch of songs about ruining peoples lives – done comically – which contrasts heartbreakingly with Joe’s love song to his long suffering wife (“Goodbye, Old Girl”) and her return of his feeling with “Near to You.” Who would think a play about a negligent husband and a forgotten wife would leave you wanting to see both of them together again? But Damn Yankees does – it’s just a spectacularly well written show.

You can still screw this up, though: but I’m pleased to report this production was (pun alert) “pitch perfect,” from the thrilling singing all the way through to the prints of the women’s dresses. (Sure the guys had too long hair but I thought it made them look yummy.) And then the production ramped it up, with great dance numbers (the baseball team in towels! I didn’t know where to look!) and vibrant performances. I was especially impressed with Jonathan D Ellis as Mr Applegate, from the moment he appeared cozied up above the fireplace in a sharkskin suit to his burn-the-house down number “Those Were the Good Old Days,” in which he had us eating out of the palm of his hand – it was almost embarrassing but we were simply mesmerized. You could say the same for the backline on Poppy Tierney’s first dress – what a Lola! I think she had a rough job ahead of her – first, competing with the legacy of Gwen Verdon, and secondly, making a character work that has nearly three entirely different personalities to manage – while singing and hoofing her heart out. And you know what? She won me over. (I’m sorry Gwen, it had to happen eventually.)

Being Meg, the faithful wife, is hardly as exciting, but Nova Skipp kept us hoping for Joe to succeed, and both our Joes (old Joe, Gary Bland, and young Joe, Alex Lodge) were warm and winning with voices that sold the parts. Gosh, I want to be critical, but when it comes down to complaining about how Lola would have looked better in latex and Elizabeth Futter’s voice couldn’t compete with the men in the ball team, well, sometimes, in Lola’s words, you’ve got to “give in.” This was a great show, ridiculously underpriced in its unmiked glory, and I was planning my return about ten minutes into it. Don’t miss it.

(This review was for the opening performance on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014. It continues through November 8th and I expect it will sell out soon. Look, here’s the link to the Landor, if you don’t click it now you’ll only have yourself to blame!)

Mini-review – Ballyturk – National Theatre

October 9, 2014 by

It seems like a new, 90 minute play would be the kind of thing I dream of, and it must be a dream for many people, because Ballyturk sold out pretty early in the run. I had a hard time getting tickets at all but finally succeeded; however, I really wish I hadn’t. What, you say, it’s an absurdist drama a la “Waiting for Godot?” Well, you know what, those gimmicky plays actually get boring pretty quickly and from the 30 minute point I was shifting uncomfortably in my chair desperately hoping something would happen that redeemed the time that was ticking by. Loud, incoherent heavily accented rambling, two dudes engaging in bizarre physical comedy: BORING! Boring boring boring! My only pleasures were listening to properly amplified 80s hits (My God Yaz in FULL STEREO! Can’t wait for the Alison Moyet tour!) and a completely surreal moment involving Jenga with wafer biscuits – otherwise I was clock watching and dreaming about other plays I could have been watching – or writing, for that matter.

Now, part of this play seemed to be about the nature of friendship (I felt), and it’s Big Picture Message was about how all life is ultimately a journey toward death and we all have to learn to let go. Well well. I can’t argue with a flaming cuckoo clock but it all just took SO long, and even for £25 I felt it was time and money poorly spent. Oh well – obviously many other people disagree and my review is coming too late to influence YOU, but I’ve said my bit: phooey.

(This review is for a performance that took place October 8, 2014. It ends Saturday October 11th.)

Review – Fred and Madge – Rough Haired Pointer at the Hope Theater

October 7, 2014 by

I keep thinking of this above-a-pub theater as the “New Hope” theater, in part because I’m a tiny bit obsessed with Star Wars, in part because its commitment to produce NEW theater and the fact it’s not even a year old yet means it is in two ways a NEW theater, one that is giving us HOPE. “Us” being us theater goers, because we’re always hoping for a brilliant new writer to come along (I am anyway) or even just a brilliant new play; but also, I think, “us” as “the writers” and probably all the other people who want new work to be seen in front of an audience. So even though I need to drop the word “new,” say, when I’m looking for the damned place (at the Hope and Anchor Pub, which is much closer to Islington than Angel stations, but just three doors away from Udderlicious), in my head this is going to be the New Hope Theater for quite some time, with Jedis, jawas, and other villainy hiding in the pub below.

What I didn’t expect the Hope Theater to be doing was presenting a work by Joe Orton; but, of all things, it turns out Fred and Madge had never been professionally done before, so it rated a Hope production – and I was glad for the opportunity to see it. Mind there was a certain level of irony in having the show produced a half hour walk from the flat where Joe was murdered; but I found it all more interesting for the atmosphere of a time and place.

But to really get there, let me take you back: London, the late 1950s. You’re an up and coming gay writer with a background on the rough side. Is it a cool world for you? Like hell it is. You look around and see a place where people live together without love and sleepwalk through meaningless lives they tell themselves are full of value. (Fred – Jake Curran – literally has a Sisyphean job, while wife Madge – Jodyanne Richardson – sieves water. I am not joking.) Meanwhile, you have arbiters of taste making pronouncements from on high – but who can take them seriously?

Into a world that already seems to be crazy, Orton puts both an uncontrollable jungle (elephants and banyan trees taking over London) and then the madness of having us step back out of the play, as the director (Jordan Mallory-Skinner) and his buddy stop the action, cut scenes (so as to have more time to drink), and randomly take the parts of missing characters. It’s actually shockingly postmodern for a student but somehow completely grounded in pre-Swinging London, with sex absolutely invisible and rage hiding beneath the surface (along with the slipper bath). The high point for me is the arrival of the insulter (Andrew Brock) and insultrix (Loz Keysone), who take a Wildean pleasure in disrespecting all and sundry. The two of them go into a high psychotic and psychedelic rage against the BBC that had me gasping for breath – spectacular and most unexpected! I think they seem almost to represent Orton’s ego inserting himself into the play.

But it’s guessing these kinds of things just as much as watching the show that makes for the fun, trying to see Orton’s later themes coming out, hearing his voice developing. I found Fred and Madge at times a bit slow, but its absurdity was still very fresh and you can’t entirely fault such a fine kettle of fish, especially when you spend the second act with a small cup of dark chocolate sea salt ice cream from up the street. MMMMM. Now that’s what I call a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 6th, 2014. It closes October 18th. A brief note that Geordie Wright was fun to watch throughout and I apologize for not mentioning him earlier in the review.)

Review – James Play 3, The True Mirror – National Theater of Scotland at National Theater

October 6, 2014 by

“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.” To some extent this was my emotional takeaway from The True Mirror, final installment of the James Plays at the National. Instead of giving us a lead character we could rally behind, we were given someone who seemed in need of a slap – rather like Richard II (as depicted by Shakespeare). James III (Jamie Sives) wants some wine, he wants some fancy clothes, he wants to get laid. Taking care of his kids? Taking care of his government? That’s boring: he wants to go hunting instead! In the face of his fecklessness and constant butterfly chasing, his poor wife Margaret (Sofie Gråbøl) winds up doing his work for him, holding the kingdom together while he gets excited about having a choir follow him everywhere and grumbling about not having enough money to do all of the things he’s excited about. And at some point, I have to say, James III’s grasp on reality starts to seem very, very tenuous.

This lead to this play turning into the story of Margaret of Denmark (James makes a big deal of mocking her for being from some place boring and having as her dowry some islands best known for sheep/human miscegenation). Margaret understands duty and fills in where James can’t be bothered, doing the accounts, attempting to make peace, and trying to raise a son who will be a worthy successor – or, in fact, better than his dad. Along the way, I found this became a story of middle aged female empowerment, as it’s smarts and hard work that help Margaret succeed in her efforts. She has work to do, and it transcends being pretty and seducing men – in fact, those aren’t her cares at all. In a world – the modern world – where looks are still very much how most women think their value lies, it’s refreshing and wonderful to watch a play in which a woman shows how it’s her accomplishments – not silly things like dancing and embroidery but patience, accounting and statemanship – that give a woman a reason to value herself.

Alongside this story – not a very exciting one, really – are a lot of what now feel like jokes about the Scottish nation and the Scottish personality. In light of the election failing to result in separation, listening to Margaret make comments about how “you Scots like to listen to yourselves complain but not do anything about it” had the audience in stiches. I detected a strong note of fear underneath the laughter – people were really worried about the Scottish people choosing to break away. And at the end of these three plays, I wound up feeling both that Scotland really does have a substantially different character than England does – but that these plays didn’t make the argument that Scotland needed to go it alone. This may or may not be true – only time will tell – but there are several more Jameses to go, and somewhere between then and now I think there’s still a play waiting to be written about the brilliant nation that is Scotland. It’s just not this play, and not really the set. But, like the election, it was a good try, and it certainly was entertaining enough along the way.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 1, 2014. It continues through most of October.)

Review – Next Fall – Southwark Playhouse

October 5, 2014 by

The idea of a comedy about a relationship with two guys sounded to me intensely appealing on the face … I mean, it’s the 21st century, we’ve really moved beyond the closeted humor of The Odd Couple and the hysteria and self-hatred of La Cage Aux Folles – isn’t it time that we admit that, like any couple, two dudes (in a relationship) in an apartment has just as much potential to be funny as any other situation? So I was ready to sit down to a good time evening and see a nice, fresh American take on what it means to be gay now with Next Fall at the Southwark Playhouse. (I mean, really, based on my friends on each of the coasts, I’m waiting for a family comedy as both of the long term guy couples I know also have daughters and there is definite comedy and drama gold for someone with a pen at the ready.)

As it turns out, this play actually fell far short of being a comedy, despite having lots of funny moments. The topics – religion, relationships, and death – were, to be honest, the kind of things that in real life we will make fun of, but which, as part of a play, actually tend to throw a pall on jokes. Do you know a good joke about organ donation? I’m sure there are plenty out there, but if you’ve spent an evening building up a relationship with a character (or years being someone’s friend), it’s actually not really a space where I find I’m ready for laughter.

The story of Next Fall is about two men who fall in love despite their age and religious differences. Adam (Charlie Condou) and Luke (Martin Delaney) initially struggle because of their different paths in life; but as they are drawn together, it’s Luke’s close relationship with God that makes it hard for Adam to feel comfortable in their relationship. And why wouldn’t it be, when his partner prays for forgiveness after sex and spends intimate moments lecturing him about what will happen if you’re on a plane during the rapture? This is on top of the constant promises to finally admit to Luke’s family that they’re actually a couple (which will happen “next fall,” get it).

In the “making this a comedy” support group we have fag hag Holly (Sirine Saba), who wants to be supportive but somehow still totally lets down Adam in the hospital; Mom (Nancy Crane), who falls apart unbelievably, and control freak Dad (Mitchell Mullen, 100% perfect in every way); and “why am I here” closeted gay man Brandon (Ben Cura), who clutches tightly onto his bible while feeling closer to God than Adam because he sticks to cheap sex rather than having a dirty “relationship” with another man. (Rarely have I seen a character who so utterly existed only to deliver a single line, although he was very hot.)

I walked away from this play asking myself, why was it written? What was the point? Was it to show that “gay marriage” was important to give same sex partners the rights to be with their partners in the hospital, like their families? (The story of Alex B Toklas essentially dying penniless because of Getrude Stein’s family stealing her partner’s bequest handled this well for me.) Was it to engage in a meaningful dialogue about religion in relationships, or about evangelic homosexuals? Adam’s rant about wiping his ass with the bible killed this line for me. Or was it to actually build a comedy showing that two guys with very different life paths could still love each other despite the various obstacles in their way? This is the story that won me over; but at the end, the story line about Adam took a turn that I found impossible to digest and untrue to the narrative at hand, unless it was really to prove the superiority of those who follow the path “of righteousness” as compared with us lesser non-believers. After 8 years in England, I’ve come to love feeling safe from the intrusiveness of God-botherers in everyday life; this play made me think that the theater would be a far worse place if they had the upper hand. Ah well, it sold well in New York; I can only hope that UK theater goers will reject this play’s message.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, September 29, 2014. It continues through October 25th.)

Review – Day of the Innocents (James play #2) – National Theater of Scotland at National Theater

September 22, 2014 by

A week after seeing The Key Will Keep the Lock (James play #1), I was practically panting to get in to see James play number two, Day of the Innocents. I’d done my usual thing of keeping an entire media blackout, though to be honest the media was filled with nothing but Scottish independence anyway (though not really talking about the play). I was ready for another two and a half hours of nation building, politics and family conflict told through a false window of history, the better to focus on the actual historical events playing out every day. (It sounded like near civil war – very appropriate given how things were happening on stage.) Forget Henry V … there was a new king in my heart, a new mythos for the 21st century.

And what I got was … well, remember how for James #1 there’s a long backstory about how James I was held prisoner for most of his youth … but we join the story as he is finally given the reins of leadership? Well, for James II, instead we get to watch the boring part, where the young king, portrayed simultaneously with a puppet and with an adult actor (Andrew Rothney – a lot of this seems to be an extended nightmare, but it bleeds over into memory), lives with the insecurity of being a pawn whose very life in in other people’s hands. When he’s not being physically manipulated (ooh the puppet metaphor, so obvious), he’s got good old Isabella Stewart to mess with his head and his “keeper,” Balvenie, making all the decisions poor James is too young to be troubled with.

The pivot of this story is really the relationship between James and Balvenie’s son, William Douglas (Mark Rowley), whom I think we’re supposed to see as a good natured buddy of the king, in no way a threat to the throne. Oddy, in his disinterest, he becomes the embodiment of what I felt these plays have been promoting as the Scottish values – independence of mind, financial self-sufficiency, pride – made ugly by cruelty and arrogance (appropriate values for the times, mind). But his change from “I just want to be your friend” to “Bugger off, Mr Supposed King Man” just doesn’t make sense. And the final conflict between him and his former friends similarly doesn’t make sense – it’s just tacked on with no exposition to explain the evolution of each of them from bosom buddies to snarling curs.

Sadly, the play spends ages showing Balvenie working with and against his son as he tries to set him up to successfully fight for kingship. But for some reason the play doesn’t spend nearly enough time working on this. Fine, James II was a boring king: but that’s no excuse to make this a boring play. If the interest is in the people that threatened his throne, then make them the center of this play. Frankly, spending nearly an hour watching a puppet whinging on stage had my sympathies swayed to the side represented by flesh and blood people. No excuses for this one, people; the third had damned well be better than this was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2014. It continues through October 29th.)

Mini-review – Wolf from the Door – Royal Court (Jerwood Upstairs)

September 16, 2014 by

For the fan of bargain theater, it’s hard to beat the upstairs space at the Royal Court: with every seat priced at £20, it’s right on the edge of “hey it didn’t cost that much so why not” for me (depending on employment circumstances: otherwise, there is still £10 Mondays). Pretty much everything I’ve seen here has been brand spanking new, so it really gets that theater addict blood pounding: is this going to be the amazing show I talk to my friends about for years? So far this year it’s given me a five star show and that’s more than enough to convince me to buy tickets to Wolf from the Door, which, with an approximately 90 minute running time, pretty much was ticking all of my boxes. Actually, this whole “no plays I’ve seen before” pledge I made this year has been working pretty well – I’m actually seeing shows that I’m excited about!

As this play is new and the description is a bit sparse, here’s a (mostly spoiler free) synopsis: a strange young drifter (Leo – Calvin Demba) connects with a much older woman (Lady Catherine – Anna Chancellor), whose attraction to him seems highly suspicous. (In fact, the scene where they meet seems so wholly divorced from the social contract that I thought he might just bludgeon her to death right there. What does happen is far less believable.) She is a Woman On A Mission, and Leo is an integral part of the world she is trying to bring to life. And, for some reason, he goes along with it.

And now for spoilers. While “the total destruction of society as we know it” seems like an unlikely outcome for nearly anything other than ineradicable disease or war, this play was able to convince that the goals that Lady Catherine was trying to accomplish were possible, in part because the whole production had an aura of surreality (the projected and announced titles and violence; the extremely simplified set; the constant reuse of two other fairly recognizable actors in the many varied roles). But also the regular banality of the discussions kept things feeling fairly here and now: discussions about what to eat; a bank manager helping a client; the interminably long scene in a minicab that had me checking my watch.

However, I found the idea that Lady Catherine would really have roused people to do what she said unbelievable; and the motivations of Leo were nonexistent. He wasn’t supposed to entirely be real, as he was a person who claimed to not need to eat or sleep; but I couldn’t believe he would accept the role Catherine intended for him, or indeed most of the things she wanted him to do, with such utter passivity. She also constantly treated him like a servant, which I found a bit gross but also a point that weakened her character’s believability. So, while, ultimately, I was reasonably engrossed in watching this completely bizarre dystopia build itself in front of my eyes, I simply was unable to believe in it enough to get truly emotionally involved. It was Science Fiction Theater but without the beautiful cinematography or deeper commentary on what makes us tick as people. So while I felt like I got my money out of it and I know some people will enjoy it, I can only recommend it to the really hard core theater fans – or maybe people who like German style theater or dystopian lit. But it did get me out the door at 9:10 and that is always a positive.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, September 11th, 2014. It continues through November 1st. It’s mostly sold out but really that’s no reason to fret.)

Review – The Key Will Keep The Lock – James Play #1 at National Theater

September 12, 2014 by

A month or so ago I was reading the news from the Edinburgh Fringe, and in the midst of all of the lack of coverage of the Scottish Independence vote from the stage (the specific article said that people just became uncomfortable unless it was dealt with as a joke), I saw a mention of the James plays that utterly pulled me in. New theater about Scottish kings? I knew nothing about them, really (always looking to bone up a bit on my history), but then to make it all more attractive I read that these plays were (supposedly) really engaging – even though there were three of them? And there was going to be a transfer to London? I went immediately to the National Theater website and found space in my calendar for all three of the plays (fortunately on the Travelex $15 series). Unsuprisingly the two days when all three plays were being done in rep were all sold out – a taste, I guessed, of the word of mouth effect on these shows. Tickets secured, I did my usual thing of going into a media blackout so I could enjoy the plays as fully as possible.

At last the day of the first show arrived – when I would discover if I’d just made an expensive error of judgment. I had a sweet seat in the center stalls (love those preview prices), but I felt envious when I saw there was a whole bank of seats on the opposite side of the stage – almost the first time I could remember seeing the Olivier being used as a theater in the round. How did those people get to those seats? Were these going to be the great views? (As it turns out, while they had the pleasure/frustration the actors working among them -especially in the scenes involving the throne, which was right in the middle of this set piece – the action was 80% facing the front otherwise and I would not consider these good seats unless they were really cheap, as spending scene after scene craning all the way to the left or right or just watching people’s backs would be very irritating).

And then the show started, sound and fury galore, a four story sword poking symbolically out of the stage (it was generally quite bare except for the occasional table or bed). We were introduced to Henry V (Jamie Sives) and his long term prisoner, James (James McArdle, whom he has kept mostly locked up for some eighteen years. Henry has captured four lesser Scottish nobles – thick accents all around – whom he wants James to make an example of. But James (thicker accent, not sure how he would have kept it being locked up from the age of ten) has other ideas, about the rules of chivalry, which he wants to apply now. Henry instead decides to show James that he still has control over him, and can beat his “rule of law” with the rule of force, because James need to learn what a king must do … and that for him, what he must do is obey.

Thus we nicely have set for us in the very first the themes of this play; of James as a dreamer, of James the king, of James as a man whose psychology might just be a little twisted by the circumstances of his life. But in parallel with this story is not just the extremely human story about his relationship with Joan (Stephanie Hyam), the queen forced on him by Henry, but of the building of the Scottish nation … a historical situation made vibrant and breathing by the current independence vote. The question of Scottish identity and the relationship and difference between Scotland and England is so alive that I could practically see them as other characters in the room, with the audience responding amazingly strongly to the debate on sovereignty happening in front of their eyes, disguised as history, making it clear that the era we are living in is one in which history is being built … on the roots of ancient actions. Wow. I could only imagine what the impact must have been of The Crucible during the McCarthy hearings. It seemed so appropriate, given this, that people spoke this new play in a modern style (complete with swear words), because the words, sentiments, and emotions were those of today. This was not a history play or a history: it was a play about now.

And I loved it. I didn’t read the program notes because I didn’t want to lose any surprises, and I was practically bouncing at intermission waiting for us to get back in and get on with it. I was on the edge of my seat when Queen Joan was being threatened and laughed when her servant Meg (Sarah Higgins) told the courtiers off for bad table manners. This is the kind of modern theater that I love, excellent, confident story telling delivered by note perfect actors with a focus on human interaction and resonance beyond the play itself. I now think the price I paid for the three shows was an incredible deal and I can’t wait for my return next week. Who needs Wolf Hall: the James plays have actually delivered us living, breathing history that makes people care. Thank you, Rona Munro; job well done.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, September 10th, 2014. It runs through October 28th and is already almost booked solid. Get your tickets now!)


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