Review – Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

June 7, 2018 by

Take a great novel with rich characters, build it out with outstanding actresses, and then season it with glorious set and sound design – the use of bells both as scenery and as a source of music was just inspired, and I can’t say enough about the final look of the wall covered with flowers, reeking of funerals, hospitals, and the beautiful garden of the mind Miss Brodie (Lia Williams) created for herself and her students, in which she dies, alone. Aaaaahhhh beautiful artistic perfection. And let’s not forget her gowns and hair (Lizzie Clachan), so strongly capturing an era and embodying a personality. MMMMMMmmmmm. What praise can I not lavish on this superlative production?

The play is far easier to follow than the original novel, with its dreamlike, backward and forward (sometimes jarringly far forward) narrative; and while purists might find this a fault, I felt the solid framing device of “the person interviewing a writer” while the writer (Rona Morrison as Sandy Stranger) has flashbacks settled my brain better, giving me the visual cues I needed to keep back story and forward/present story clear. The five actresses playing a classroom of 10 year old girls had me reaching for the program, convinced they were not one over 18; Nicola Coughlan (as Joyce Emily) has a particular fragility I associate with girls around 13 and was both heartbreaking (in the junior school scenes) and fascinating (as a sulky teenager) – but completely believable overall. The rest of the “Brodie Set” slowly brought their personalities to the fore, but most of them aren’t meant to be key players, although they still are lively and make the stage glow.

The beaming sun, though, is Miss Brodie herself, whom Lia Williams inhabits with a vitality that transcends acting and settles firmly into the world of “being.” I, at fifty, felt the fragility behind the energy of Brodie; she is in her prime, she is made 85% of will and 15% of style but, my God, how clear it is that her prime is a position she cannot inhabit long. The men (Edward McLiam as Mr Lloyd and Angus Wright as Mr Lowther, both hugely frustrated throughout) swarm about her like bees, but it is she who will not make it past her summer, not the drones; and the casual spinning and unpicking of the wonderful life she has made with herself at the center comes apart in a way that seems both inevitable and still entirely heartbreaking, almost like a spider eaten by her children.

But it’s not that tragic. No, the tragedy is that Miss Brodie is a character that is not saintly but flawed, human, and navigating a peculiar world with rules we of this modern age are unbound by; we can divorce, we do not have to quit work when we marry, and we can walk home by ourselves at 11 without questions being asked. She feels she cannot. Added to this is her injected flaw of supporting fascism; I see this as Spark’s way of showing that Brodie “may be on the wrong side,” as the original novel was written long after the correct people to support in the case of World War Two had been well settled. It, I think, too consciously sets us (as the reader/audience) against her, though reading other literature written at the time it’s clear that there was a bit more debate about it going on than we have now.

But we can still dedicate ourselves selflessly, and perhaps senselessly, to people we care about, and Brodie’s desire to see her girls flourish is hard not to cheer even if her ways of seeing this through are not necessarily in the best interest in girls of 16, or even women of 22. We are caught in both wanting her stopped and wanting her to carry on, with teaching about art, and music, and life; so we too are ultimately complicit in her betrayal. And ooooohhhh how lusciously it all plays out. At nearly a three hour running time, I was convinced I’d only been in the theater for 2:15 at the most, despite knowing the interval was over at 9PM. And that, lads and lasses, is what I would call a successful night at the theater – emotionally satisfying and utterly involving.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6, 2018. It continues though July 28. New tickets are released on the Donmar’s website on Mondays at noon.)

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Death, Sex and Robots: Three play round-up

May 23, 2018 by

In the last month I’ve gone to see two plays about robots and one play about grief/death/suicide – Instructions for Correct Assembly (Royal Court), Mayfly (Orange Tree Theatre) and Sex With Robots and Other Devices – and the thematic similarities between the three plays is quite remarkable. All three of them are not, obviously, the same, but the same questions are asked by all three of them, and definitely between two of them, with lesser or greater success. Seeing them all definitely gave me food for thought – I present these crumbs now for you.

Summary: Assembly is an extremely episodic play in which a family buy a robot to replace (in far too many ways) their dead son; Mayfly is about a family (mother, dad, 20sish daughter) coping very poorly with the death of the son/brother (and using a total stranger to help fill the gaps he’s left in their lives); Robots is a series of vignettes of how having a sex robot has affected various individuals and couples. Clearly, the grief element unites Assembly and Mayfly; robots unite Assembly and Robots; but death and loss unite the three. Short summary: Mayfly, while imperfect, is the superior play – I only say this because it is still showing and if you find this commentary interesting you should hurry up and go.

While the couple that opens (and perhaps the couple that ends) Robots is dealing poorly with the loss of a child, (still born, I think), the emotional impact of this is pretty well nil given the 5 minutes or so length of the scenes. Assembly is nearly entirely about grief, a grief that unspools and entangles you within it over the course of its running time. The mom and dad seem to just want a robot around the house for the amusement it provides; but over time, they slip into things like having it call them “mum” and talking about it going to school and getting an education as if it were their actual child. Most tragically, both the mother and father work out their own guilt at their complicity in their son’s death (drugs overdose, I think) by playing out the past with the robot doing or saying what they wish their son had. Sadly, though, the impact of these scenes was frittered away by the generally light and comic tone of the rest of the play; the anger the couple had toward each other and the way they were dealing it was, in my mind, the real story that needed to be told, far more so than “oh how embarrassing to have a robot say something rude at a dinner party.” I left this play convinced that using technology had led to a mistelling of what was a profoundly human story; otherwise it was a bit of a blend of Pinocchio and AI and similarly not very moving.

Between Robots and Assembly, the best technology moments were when people were developing real feelings for what were essentially machines; or when the machines themselves were showing signs of developing feelings themselves. This made me think of the ever popular SF trope of “what makes us human,” which is fun to explore, but honestly neither play went into it at all deeply. However, the scenes in Robot in which a woman was dealing with the mental degradation (dementia) of a robot companion she had had for a long time was starting to show where this show could have been really touching; I could easily have imagined a lovely work of fiction coming out of this. Or just some interesting ways of dealing with Alzheimer’s and also (in the case of this play) a same sex relationship in which one person needed to go into a care home. Unfortunately given the short nature of the scenes this wasn’t developed nearly as well as it could have been, but it hinted at depths that were available to the topic.

Overall most successful of these three plays was decidedly Mayfly. It seemed heavy handed at making its points about how people don’t talk about grief and missing very well (and the ending was nauseatingly writerly); but the trio of damaged family members seemed pretty believable after their initial ridiculousness; each had a manifestation of grief (or several) that seemed quite believable and in which I was able to become emotionally invested. The punch in the gut was in one tiny scene, which is so good I can imagine the playwright building the whole play out from it: in it, the mother asks a stranger to call her, using her dead son’s cell phone, and talk to her, pretending to be him. This is very much looking at how technology is helping us deal with being human; but in this case, I was utterly bought into the tragedy of this scene.

So: sex, death, and robots – in the theater, it’s ultimately the things that show people’s feelings – and weak spots, and illogical spots – that most clearly illuminated being human.

(Mayfly continues through May 26. Robots continues through June 2nd.

Interview with the Author

February 23, 2018 by

Interviewer: So, TL, you’re accused of basing your plays on your life and people you know. What do you say to that?
Me: 100% true! I’m just lucky that I’ve lived long enough to have lots to write about.
I: Isn’t this unethical?
TL: I’d ask Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
I: Aren’t you worried about running out of material?
TL: No, I’m worried about running out of time.
I: Wouldn’t you get more writing done if you lived someplace quieter?
TL: For a while, but then I’d lose that buzz for writing I get living in such an electrifying environment. Stewart Pringle, Sophia Conner (my dramaturgue), Ralph Bogard, Erin Wilson… Being in London makes me want to make theater. Talent, venues, collaborators … it’s just heaving with possibilities.
I: Don’t forget the inspiration of seeing so many other plays!
TL: Oh yeah, always nice to have one of those nights where you go, “Yeah, I could do better than that.”
I: That’s not what I meant.
TL: Really? I promise you, when I walk out of a Jez Butterworth or Mike Bartlett, all I’m thinking is, “Might as well throw in the towel, I’ll never be that good.” But then Alan Bennett writes a new play, and I think,”Oh yeah, always room for one more.”

Review – Snow White and the Seven Poofs – Simon Gross at the Karma Sanctum Hotel

December 20, 2017 by

It’s been some years since I last saw this adult version of the classic Snow White, in an evening that broke my brain so hard I actually went back a second time. In fact, this show is the reason why I am now a connoisseur of adult pantos. Yeah, sure, Above the Stag may have all of the hunky boys in theirs, but Simon Gross has the bitchy drag queens and the jokes that leave me crying, with bonus audience hassling and great music. By the end of the night EVERYBODY was dancing along, and it doesn’t get better than that at a panto.

The new venue left something to be desired – while the Karma Sanctum Hotel is a sweet little joint, £12 cocktails are OW when you’re a reviewer on a budget and the downstairs room where the show was held had a completely flat floor that meant sight lines were not the best. But I sat in the front row, so I didn’t care, and to be honest with a sold out house that was probably soused when they got in the door, I doubt most of the other customers cared that much either.

The costumes are cheap and the cast is quirky (although Vicki Vivacious is not just lively as Snow White but proves quick with insults and banter – two customers who popped to the loos during a scene were rewarded with her appearing from behind the curtains to render judgement on their “qualifications”), and there’s no doubt in my eyes people who are looking for a trad panto will find much to complain about. But what did I get for my £20? Great jokes from “Queen Showbiz” (Simon Gross as a very unattractive stepmother); truly funny dance numbers done by a talented cast (the YMCA one introducing the dwarves, including Sub, Dom, and Muscle Mary was right on the money); piles of improv (sometimes as people forgot their lines but whatevs); and GOOD music we were encouraged to sing and dance to.

YMCA as danced by Snow White’s Dwarves. Poofs.


And you know what? The audience was in to it. They were dancing, they were laughing at the jokes (even when they were being made fun of), they were clapping and roaring with laughter. Compared to the rather stiff show I saw at the Hackney last week, this was miles ahead if fun is what matters to you. It feels rough and sometimes tattered, but to me this has more of the true feeling of the British music hall tradition and the true sense of panto than any show with a million pounds to spend on costumes and top notch professionals combing through their scripts to make sure every little joke is guaranteed to offend nobody. I’m glad I went back and I’ll be looking for Gross’s panto next year; this is the perfect remedy for the Christmas blues. For me, it was the bubbles in my champagne – or, let’s be honest, cava, because we’re not that high class. Be sure to drink heavily before your arrival and DON’T sit in the front row.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 19th, 2017. It continues through January 7th. It’s apparently selling out so if you want to go get your tickets now, the venue is SMALL.)

Review – The Shadow over Innsmouth – Hidden Basement Productions at the London Horror Festival

October 27, 2017 by

For me, the highlight of the program for this year’s London Horror Festival was always going to be The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which I had missed on its previous outing in 2015. I know, how could I have, yet with only two day runs for most of these shows, you really have to be on top of your schedule to get to see all of your best picks.

So as you probably know, I’m a Lovecraft fan of long running, or at least a fan of Lovecraft theater. I’m a big fan of the mythos Lovecraft created and really enjoy seeing how people take the source material and make it come alive. This is even more of a thought to me after adapting a Lovecraft work myself last year, but, honestly, I’m still just approaching this like a fan, but a theater fan first. I want to see a good play on stage. Would Hidden Basement deliver? Or would they be too faithful to the original and succeed in recounting the story without making a good play happen?

I’m pleased to report that this inventive company has taken a broad and emotionally satisfying approach to retelling this classic tale of horror. The key moments were covered: the bus ride; the strangeness of Innsmouth; the incident at the general store; the meeting with Zadok Allen; Zadok’s history of the town; the revelation of the narrator’s unexpected past. The fishiness of the folk was handled nicely through the use of puppets, as was the need of having other characters than could be managed just by Phillip North and Claire Matthews – at one point they put the narrator’s hat on top of a hanger and both had a conversation with it. Genius!

The overall feeling of this extremely funny show was one of a light touch with a heavy coat of humor and a tasteful selection of illustrative props (the crown being a touch of genius – its airy construction encouraging us to see the glories described to us – or perhaps entirely missing depending on how reliable you chose to find Robert Olmstead’s story). The Narrator was very obviously going mad … or, shall I say, feeling like he was going mad as he was attempting to adjust his thinking to a very new version of reality. I belly laughed when he started trying to have a conversation with the fish he’d been served for dinner … but how was I to know what was real and what was imagined? This constant struggle between the everyday reality and the intrusion of an external, malevolent reality surrounding our own was nicely illustrated by the rock solid practicality of the narrator’s bride, whose frustrating interactions with her increasingly less sane fiance were QUITE amusing. In short, Hidden Basement delivered a show that was both a winner as an hour long theater piece (it was tremendously engaging) and as a fresh take on a horror classic. With luck it will be revived again, as of the many Lovecraft adapations I’ve seen, this was one of the best.

(This is a review of a show that took place on October 17. 2017 at the Old Red Lion as a part of the

Review – Lucky Stiff – Union Theatre

October 3, 2017 by

While death and comedy seem to have little in common, there have been more than a few occasions where the presence of a corpse has livened up (see what I did there?) a work of fiction. The classic is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – but it’s hardly a comedy. No, you’d have to go to the heights (or depths) of musical theater to find a dead body that adds laughs to a show … and this is exactly what you get in Lucky Stiff, currently playing at the Union Theater. I had seen Ahrens and Flaherty’s Ragtime some years back, but that didn’t prepare me for the OUTRAGEOUS FUN of Lucky Stiff. I mean, it was like the very best Hollywood comedies – you know, the ones where you end up gasping for breath because the jokes never stop? The ones where every single actor is hamming it up so much that you barely know who to watch? Yeah, Lucky Stiff was that kind of funny – a really snappy script, brilliant actors, and then to make it even better THERE WERE A BUNCH OF SONGS. All it needed was a little tap dancing, really.

Right, so let’s recap the plot. Harry Witherspoon, dull (yet handsome, yes that’s you Tom Elliot Reade) shoe salesman, has little to look forward to in life until he comes home to discover that an American relative who he never knew has died and left him millions of dollars. The catch, though, is that he has to take his uncle’s corpse on a final visit to Monaco. With six million dollars riding on it, Witherspoon of course says yes; but what he doesn’t realize is that both a representative of the alternate inheritor (a dog shelter) is heading his way to try to trip him up, along with his uncle’s ex-girlfriend, who’s convinced the corpse has the key to the money she helped Harry’s uncle embezzle from her husband’s casino. So: Monte Carlo, a square, a corpse, a sincere young woman (Natasha Hoeberigs), and a money hungry New Jersey bimbo (Natalie Moore -Williams) whose lies have attracted the attention of the mob … kinda looks like old Harry may have bit off a bit much, huh?

As you might guess, everything starts going wrong for everybody – I mean, come on, this set up is pretty much the definition of madcap, just as much as the classic “scientist brings home chimpanzee for the weekend.” It could all seem a bit too much, but everyone, including the corpse (Ian McCurrach) throws themselves into their roles with gusto. The songs aren’t Sondheim, but they add extra bubbles to the mix and gives us some headroom to develop affection for our lead character and for him to develop … well, a romantic interest. A song comparing the loyalty of boyfriends compared to dogs? I got a bit teary!

The overall mood of the show was ebullient, and with a tight two hour running time it’s a perfect after work snack. Feel free to load up at the “prosecco on tap” bar in the foyer … a fizzy feeling is the perfect accompaniment to this frothy, giddy show.

(This review is for the opening night perfomance which took place on September 29th, 2017. The show continues through October 21st.)

Review – Follies – National Theater

September 3, 2017 by

Imagine going into an attic, and finding a dusty Faberge egg. You open it, and inside is a music box, two keys broken. You wind it up and it starts playing pretty music while little jeweled characters whirl around in the semi-darkness. This is Follies. The story concerns a reunion of old showgirls in a crumbling Broadway theater; they reminisce about the old times, do some numbers in the guise of reliving memories, and perform a few things together as their current selves while the shadow of their past mirror them in the wings and disintegrating dressing rooms. Eventually the story focuses on two couples, Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes) and Phyllis and Benjamin Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast), whose lives have not quite matched the hopes they had back when the girls were on stage and the boys were wooing them. This leads to an entire suite of “The Follies” of these four people … which has a total “jumped the shark” feel to it, but hey, it’s a musical, when do these things make sense? If Sondheim was tired of writing songs in the style of old vaudeville numbers and wanted to do more emotional reveals, that suited me fine. And the dance numbers from this section were just completely nuts – probably closer to what an actual review would have been like back in the day but something I’d really never seen on stage – only in the movies.
faberge-egg
Are you reading this to decide whether or not to go? Then open a new tab and just get yourself some tickets now, because if you love musicals of the Sondheim variety, then you probably already knew you had to go and just wanted confirmation. I’m doing that. You’re confirmed. And remember the National releases rush seats every Friday for the next week’s show for 20 quid – so if it’s sold out by the time you read this, it’s not in fact too late – you just need to jump on the ticket buying next Friday. (And please remember it’s 2:10 no interval so save your wine for after the show.)

To me, the genius of this production is doing this show in London, where assembling some ten or so top shelf actresses who are out of the ingenue era is as easy as grabbing a handful of sweeties out of a candy barrel, and we, the audience, come out winners (while the actresses get some damned fine material to work with). Our cornucopia of theatrical riches spills out on stage, greatly enhanced by the National’s shameless expediture on brilliant costumes for the “young” versions of the various actresses – Miss 1930, Miss 1925, et cetera – which we get to sit and enjoy as they glimmer and shimmy behind or alongside their modern (1971) counterparts.

The various conceits – of having musical numbers done from this classic era of stage, of shifting the story between the “girls” and the two couples, of having all of the characters represented by both their modern and their much younger selves – does so much to structure this show that it feels like it teeters of the edge of having just gone too far but ends up feeling masterful. We are just as much in the hands of a person who is on top of their game as I was earlier this year at The Ferryman. And the four leads were … well, actually, I do have a bit of a beef, because although I came to see Imelda Staunton, I felt that as Sally Plummer she was too one note. Sure, the character is a bit unhinged, and yeah Ms Staunton can dance and sing, but … I thought there were more depths to be found, somewhere, especially by such a skilled actress as Staunton. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Sally was just written that way. But as consolation we have the magnificent “Losing My Mind” … and Janie Dee’s “Could I Leave You” … and, my God, just SO MANY GOOD SONGS.

I know. I’m just a blogger. I’ve let you down. There are better words I could use to describe this show. But mind this: I have already bought a ticket to go back. And when I sat there watching it, goosebumps raced over my skin, and I thought, “My God, this is it, an honest to God five star show, perfection incarnate, and I am here seeing it at the National and people will be talking about this show for years.” I know I will.

(This review is of a preview performance that too place on August 30th, 2017. Follies is running through January 3rd, 2018.)

Review – The Mentor – Vaudeville Theater

July 26, 2017 by

Walking down The Strand on my way to a show, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of new plays on that I’d overlooked. Look, right next door to Kinky Boots, a show called The Mentor, about which, seriously, not a peep. Now I know I’ve been keeping a low profile due to “cheap” meaning “no seats at all,” but it seemed odd that there was a show on the West End that had managed to completely fly beneath my radar. Half of what’s on right now is just last spring’s leftovers, and there’s a huge changeover happening as shows like The Girls and Beautiful end their runs. I did a bit of research – it was an 85 minute comedy about two playwrights having a clash of egos. Well, hell, I’m writing plays, why not come? If it had been in real life I would have paid solid money for it – much like I would have to have seen Stoppard and Pinter playing cricket.

The idea behind this play is that two men, an established playwright, Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) – who has done little of note since his first, tremendous play – and a up-and-coming playwright, Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman), are being brought together courtesy of an arts organization that wants to raise its profile by getting a “mentorship” program established. Neither men seems to relish the actual “mentoring;” the older one is only there for the money and the younger one is just hoping to get a boost to his reputation. Meanwhile, apparently because there wasn’t enough dialogue to flesh the play out otherwise, we have two additional characters, the foundation’s representative (Jonathan Cullen) and the playwright’s wife, Gina (Naomi Frederick), who are given very little to say. Gina bigs up the elder playwright and gives her husband a foil, although she does manage to come into her own; poor Cullen has nearly nothing to do besides look hopeful and make beverages. Still, the addition of Gina to the plot makes the struggle between Rubin and Wegner far more visceral that it would have been if they were just discussing realism versus, er, non-linearism; Rubin wants to win this game on a more than literary platform.

While Rubin as a character is so well written and well played that the entire exercise seems to swirl around him – he is, after all, “the mentor” – the egotism, fragility, and, well, whiny man-baby aspects of his mentee are also a delight to see spattered on the stage. There’s little discussion of what actually makes a good play (I would have enjoy this) but much about how one survives in the creative world – whether by living off of one’s wife, using one’s artistic nature as a club to control others, finding the best way to make people laugh at parties, or by constant self-pimping – that provide unflattering insights into the actual life of artists as well as giving the audience plenty of comedy fodder. In the end, The Mentor seemed a slight play, but well done in its smallish form – a sort of perfect after work snack. Not every night is meant for Virginia Woolf or Hamlet; The Mentor is short and sweet and suited me nicely.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 21, 2017.)

Klanghaus – 800 Breaths – Royal Festival Hall

July 14, 2017 by

At about 7:30 Wednesday evening, I was standing on the rooftop of the Royal Festival Hall, noticing how I could see Saint Paul’s, Big Ben, and the Shard (as well as the front view of Waterloo Station!) when a gray haired woman turned to me and said, “Can you explain to me what that was about?” And “that” was Klanghaus 2017, a promenade gig/visuals/let’s explore the non-public spaces of the Royal Festival Hall event we had both just done. (Technically it’s “800 Breaths” but since there was one last year and one this year I think 2017 is the name that will stick.)

Only now it’s you asking, so imagine I’m facing you, in the sunshine and holding a limed glass of fizzy water, and saying,

“Well, it’s kind of like a chance to explore these unseen parts of this really great building, right? I mean, if you’re into brutalist architecture, which I am, or industrial spaces, which I also am. And by putting music into them, and having us walk from place to place, we’re getting to see places nobody ever goes to and experience them, right? And by putting music and visuals into these forgotten places they are ‘activating’ them, bringing them to life, so we got to see them in a way we never really could have even if you ignore the fact that we would never get to come to these places in the first place.

“But it was also kind of a gig, right? A chance to hear the music that this band plays. And I don’t think they wrote a whole bunch of new songs or music to go with what we were doing, so really in was form adapting to content and not the other way around. “Skywriting” for sure, only “Breathe in/breathe out,” just before we got out of the hot stuffy bit to the outside, that was a really nice one. So it was a bit about experiencing the space, a bit about enjoying the music. If you don’t like the architecture or the music then maybe it wouldn’t be such a great thing for you. But I liked it.”

So if I were talking to you, an undecided potential audience member, I’d want you to know that if you’re a fan of The Neutrinos (who perform music while we watch) or funky industrial architecture, you’re going to want to hustle to get tickets. And since you’ll be going up stairs, down a ladder, and just plain old standing; seriously, wear comfy shoes, no dresses, and refuse the offer of earplugs at your peril (the first room was so loud you could feel the air moving against your face).

But there’s more; the visuals provided by Sal Pittman. I sat entranced by a whirling propeller … or was it a drumstick? And later surrounded by a cocoon of music I stared down a hallway watching a flower open and close … open and close …. its organic perfection in complete contrast to the green, aging machinery framing it … like sailing in The Phantom of the Opera’s boat, but through the byways of Metropolis instead of the catacombs of Paris. 

And there was one tiny moment of ecstasy, when we fellow travelers all huddled under a low ceiling, and our musicians sang unamplified and in harmony, with a bass plucked along nearly sub-audibly, like a lonely elephant calling to its herd, and over my head a diver swam up, up, up to the air, in search of … the cool fresh air we were all about to walk into. It was so intimate and so lovely and so untethered from time and any reality. It was wholly now and us together and so … effervescent. And I didn’t really know how to pop out of the reality of explaining “what it all meant” and find words to convey that moment, but it was there and I was there and it was just perfect. 

( This review is for the 6:30 performance that took place on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Last year’s performance sold out so buy now.)

Review – Queen Anne – Royal Shakespeare Company at Theater Royal Haymarket

July 12, 2017 by

As a blogger, I don’t usually get invitations to West End shows, so it was hard to not say yes to an opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Queen Anne here in Londoninium. I was also intrigued by the subject matter, a modern treatment of a lesser monarch (by Helen Edmundson), and given that I’ve recently been to Blenheim Palace (for the Max Richter concert of music from Woolf Works) there was some additional interest for me. And the RSC is a rare treat for me, as I don’t usually travel to see shows and their tickets when they’re in London are not inexpensive. I expected high quality acting, costuming, and sets … the question would be how is the play?

The set for this show was gorgeously simple, an arched double level wall that from the top occasionally served as windows or balconies and from the bottom, the doors to various rooms. But most of the action took place in bedrooms – usually that of the princess and later queen, Anne (Emma Cunniffe), although also that of her closest friend and confidante, the Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). It is in the interaction of these two women that most of the play’s plot is twined, although there is also some forward motion brought to play by the distant cousin (Abigail – Beth Park) that the Duchess (Sarah) has placed in the queen’s household. It’s interesting to see how close both women are to the queen – while the Duchess advises (and cajoles) on politics in contrast to Abigail’s job of changing the bandages on Anne’s suppurating legs, they both sleep in her bed regularly and provide as much emotional support as they do practical. There’s also a hint of a more sexual tone to Sarah’s relationship with the Queen, although it seems to be of far less import than the fact that the poor monarch endured 17 pregnancies with no surviving children to show for her efforts.

Anne’s personal tragedies – the loss of so many children, her own bad health, and the death of her husband midway through her reign – are certainly remarkable, but the historic times in which she lived, with ongoing Catholic versus Protestant conflict, substantial wars abroad, and the battle for Scotland via “The Great Pretender” are of such import that the story of her impact as a monarch is just as weighty a story and one well worth being told on stage. We get a fair amount of detail about the War of Spanish Succession (including financing thereof) and the maneuvering to get peace with Scotland; all of which are most welcome to see covered on stage. Even better is the Whig versus Tory split which makes itself known in attempts to influence Anne to pick one versus another to advice her cabinet. And yet, for some reason, the author of this play chose to focus on … Sarah’s temper tantrums when she thinks Abigail is now more popular with the queen than she is?

Really?

All of this history and suddenly we’re watching Mean Girls?

What makes it even worse is that neither the political wisdom Sarah Churchill must have had through close contact with her husband (or which she shared with him!) nor the relationship that Anne would have had with her own husband (who must have taken some interest in the country he lived in!) receive much attention at all. The broadsheets that mocked the queen get some attention, but a play just about how they worked behind the scenes to rake mud seems like a more intriguing yarn. Instead, we watch these two women play out one-note lives – Anne as Eeyore and Sarah as Regina George – while Abigail is entirely ignored as a plot opportunity. Cunniffe probably could have eked a bit more out of Anne but ultimately this is a case where the blame falls firmly at the writer’s feet. People interested in filling an evening with a learning a bit of history may find this show passable; but it is far from a classic. Let us hope the misadventures of the pamphleteers get their chance at some point in the future.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Tuesday, July 11,  2017.)