Posts Tagged ‘David Troughton’

Review – My City – Almeida Theatre

November 1, 2011

Two months ago, a friend told me she was coming out to visit from New York. We reviewed the shows that would be playing, and she said, “This one! I must see My City because I love Tracey Ullman and I love the Almeida!” Well, then. Tickets were bought … but then the reviews began to come out, and I had The Fear. People seemed to be really disliking the show. However, it was sold out for nearly the whole run … was it just celebrity casting? Were my fellow online reviewers not in touch with the theater-going public? Only one way to find out …

As it turns out, My City was an engaging night of story telling with a strong cast, though it failed to fully develop the Roald Dalh-esque ending it seemed to be heading for. The framing of the story is that an adult student (Richard – Tom Riley) runs into his primary school teacher (Lambert – Tracey Ullman) while she’s lying on a park bench and acting not altogether well, a chance encounter that leads into a full-on reunion between the student (and his best school friend and fellow difficult student Julie – Siân Brooke) and the key teachers at the school (a random North London elementary). While the story of the play appears to be something about letting go of the past (poignantly shown by the old posters Mr Minken – David Troughton – has held on to over the years) in order to build yourself a better future, the actual purpose, in my book, is to tell a variety of stories both about the past (a magical London inhabited by elephants and legions of typists, not to mention apple-crunching ghosts) and the present (a rather more frightening world with child murderers and rat hunting), providing an overlay to the city most of us live in – my city to be sure, and likely yours – that makes Old Smoke seem a more exciting place to be. These stories are primarily told by Lambert, with her two assistant teachers (Minken and Summers – Sorcha Cusack) acting by her side, or occasionally taking the lead.

The play gets to quite a head as it becomes clear that Richard has also been telling stories, and his exposure leads to a confrontation between the former students and the retired teachers. It seems that the teachers are conspiring against the kids, somehow, but the playwright has for some reason chosen to not pursue this very interesting avenue – what would, in a Roald Dahl world, been the misanthropic goal of the teachers, forever plotting against their kids? – but rather takes us on a sudden side track in which Richard suddenly figures out the reason for Lambert’s long walks in an extraordinarily unsatisfying finale.

To top it off, the whole trope of “leaving the past behind” seems to me to be utterly upended by the raw beauty of what Mr Minken has held on to over the years – not just the mementos of the children he’s taught, but relics of his family that, to be honest, have created a memory in me that I think will stay forever, of one little box with two precious things in them (my own new mind picture burned in by a real scene stealing performance of how this box came to be what it was). I left the evening disappointed by the play structurally – especially with what it could have done with more time and more imagination – but pleased by the evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 31st, 2011. My City continues through Saturday, November 5th.)

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Review – Inherit the Wind – Old Vic (2009)

November 8, 2009

On Wednesday I went with J and Amy to see Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic Theatre. It had had fairly good reviews since its opening, and though that encouraged me to see it, the fact it was a dyed in the wool “old chestnut” and the rather painful cost of undiscounted tickets made me think that this was going to be yet another show at this venue I took a pass on in favor of a future, more affordable production. But Amy encouraged me, and, well, I’m really not too hard to convince to see a show (unless it’s something yawningly commercial, or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, in which case I’ll choose reading at home over going out, even for free), plus she found some £15 seats “partially obstructed by a column.” I couldn’t help but think it was Kismet (even though it was actually not a musical at all), so off we trucked to Waterloo via happy hour at Cubana (two mojitos for £4.95, yum!).

The plot of this show is inspired by the Scopes monkey trial, a famous American court case in which a high school teacher was prosecuted under Tennessee state law for the heinous crime of teaching evolution (and out of a biology textbook, too), but with the name of the teacher changed as well as the state and other pertinent details to make it clear it’s merely “inspired” and not “based on.”

It’s billed as a courtroom drama, and much of the best dialogue does take place as arch-conservative and bible thumper Mathew Harrison (David Troughton) attempts to grandstand during his various witness examinations , while defense attorney Henry Drummond (Kevin Spacey) fights back by arguing that the law itself is unjust – not that his client is innocent. In short, it’s “uphold the moral fabric of our society” versus “man must be allowed the freedom to think his own thoughts,” conservatives versus liberals on a stage of their own making, with nary a lick of true concern for the person in danger of imprisonment.

While this revival was done in honor of the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” in fact the core conflict between science and “the beliefs that uphold our social values” has just recently proven itself very much alive with the dismissal of David Nutt for scandalously asserting that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana (somehow using. science to support his beliefs, rather than toeing the government’s anti-drug line). Will people in power use their efforts to suppress the views of those whose opinions counter their policies even when science backs them up? All I can say is, if he’d been Copernicus, you can damned well bet they’d have been lighting a bonfire to burn him on.

Ahem. Anyway, the story was deliciously topical, but, even better, the story was much more than just two lawyers duking it out; there was also a great underlying conflict between the teacher and his girlfriend Rachel Brown (Sonya Cassidy), the daughter of the town’s preacher. She wants to please her dad, but also wants her boyfriend to just say he was wrong so things can get back to normal. Unfortunately, Cassidy played the role just a bit too hysterically. Where was her arc, where her ups to go with her downs, where her middle? I could sympathize with the point of view she represented – and she did make the townsfolks’ attitudes seem more plausible – but she was just an actress saying lines on stage and never really came to life as the character

To some extent it seems she was taking her cue from Mr. Spacey, as his Henry Drummond was, every limping, shuffling, hunched-over minute, an actor who was playing, not to the back of the stalls, but to some point across the street (possibly La Cubana). I couldn’t figure out why he had to be so heavy-handed – the Old Vic isn’t exactly stadium-sized. Troughton, in comparison, was most perfectly the larger-than-life character that one would expect a washed up, evangelical, former politician (with current political goals) to be – his was a life lived as if on a stage, and his performance perfectly captured the reality of this type of personality. Perhaps Spacey felt the need to upstage him, but his clumsiness failed to hit the mark, and when even the preacher hit his role better, Spacey was left looking like the weakest point in a fairly good evening.

The entire production benefited from a gorgeous, realistic set with amazing depth, and a staging that included piles of Americana – church singing, outdoor suppers, lemonade stands, and prayer meetings, to name a few (and impeccable accents other than Nutt’s occasional slip into Brooklynese). The singing was actually enjoyable – one of the few times I’ve seen a play done with music that added to the production instead of feeling like a clunky afterthought. It all felt very … well, professional, very much English-style theater. I can see why it’s been packing in the punters night after night, especially the school groups (whom I imagine running home to laugh about those backward Americans and not so much actually discussing Darwin like I imagine their teachers hope they will). But what bothers me is that it seems not nearly enough people are actually taking home the real message of the play, of the value of conscience over the will of the state, and of the never ending conflict of science and “hysteria knows best.” At least, I like to think, amidst the shame of the still ongoing battle about biology instruction in America as the church tries to take over the state, we’re at least coming out as a country where people will take a stand against unjust laws, and people will stand up for science no matter what lawmaker finds it inconvenient. I can only hope people in this country do the same.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009. Inherit the Wind continues at the Old Vic through december 20th, 2009.)