Posts Tagged ‘Jemima Rooper’

Review – All My Sons – Apollo Theatre

June 17, 2010

All My Sons is a play that didn’t hit my radar until after it opened. I’ve seen Henry Miller Arthur Miller but not considered him great; the cast (as ever) meant nothing to me; and, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution of seeing “less plays, but enjoying them more,” I didn’t bother booking tickets on spec just to get in an early review. But then the reviews started coming in, and with the quick glance at the West End Whingers’ surprisingly generous allocation of wine glasses on top of ShentonStage’s enthusiastic (possibly “raving”) opening night tweets, suddenly All My Sons was on the map and rocketing into must-see levels. A couple of quick glances at various papers showed similar levels of enthusiasm, and then it was off on the hunt for tickets, and quickly, before they became impossible to get at anything approaching affordable prices. TKTS was showing availability on early-weekday nights at half price, but LastMinute wasn’t really coming through: all signs pointed to “hit!” But then I had a bit of good luck; a friend of mine who’s hearing impaired wanted to go, and thanks to her I actually got to sit in the stalls for half price (nicely situated for her to lip read) – row F on a Tuesday night.

My efforts were well rewarded and I think my summary judgment on this show is that, for once, the West End’s got something that is worth paying full price. The cast is good, and effortlessly American; and the script is powerful, succeeding both in creating characters that are realistic and intriguing, and a plot that rockets along like Ibsen’s best, leaving you wide-eyed and excited at intermission because you want to know what’s going to happen next. I had no idea, as I’d carefully avoided reading too much plot: a nice and spoiler-free summary is “the card-house of lies Joe Keller (David Suchet) had built comes crashing down on his head, and he knows he cannot escape.” (I think I saw this in the Metro’s review, so no credit for originality.) Miller deftly captures the venality at the heart of American culture; while England may be a nation of shopkeepers, America is more of a nation of salesman and manufacturers, always looking for the better deal, and valuing the “almighty dollar” above anything else. This is how we get disasters like the BP oil slick visited on us; greed and industry-favoring deals are in the nation’s blood. At the same time, Miller shows a country where people do, well and truly, love each other, and not just because of family ties; and a population of people who can have very high standards … but too often find them, eventually, compromised. This gives the story, set clearly a few years after World War II (yet vaguely in “an American town” – I imagine Michigan or Illinois), a lovely timelessness that make the historical references mere markers to give us context*.

Playing characters this complex is tricky, I think, but the cast uniformly managed to not seem cartoonish in some difficult roles. Kate Keller (Zoe Wannamaker, with her strange New Jersey-ish accent) makes her belief in the existence of her missing son – with its attendant rquest for astrological charts and strange obsessions with a fallen tree – ultimately true to the core, alongside her dedication to her husband Joe in full sight of his failings; Jemima Rooper, as the missing son’s fiancée Anne Deever, initially comes off as too hard to be of the era (and so young), but as her character unfolds, her resolve becomes more reasonable and her underlying conflicts flesh out her actions and make her ability to make any connections more reasonable – still, she seemed a bit stiff.

Potentially clunkiest of them all is Joe and Kate’s son Chris. This character seems to lend itself to being a buffoonish role – either too prude, or too idealistic to be believed, or just generally so inflexible that he can’t possibly come off as a real person. But Stephen Campbell Moore must have poked around deeply to find all of the threads that could take a man who loves his family – and his father – so much, stuffed him full of the milk of human kindness, then sent him off to war to watch his men all die while he tried to hold onto whatever it was that made him himself and gave him a reason to keep on living. I really thought I was never going to warm to Chris, but after he passed through some smallish marriage and love type crisis and moved on to his relationship with his family, he came to life at last and started just to be Chris, Chris who doesn’t believe all people to be good but who truly wants them to be.

Of course the whole play rotates around dad, Joe Keller, the man whose love of his family supposedly motivates him above all else; he’s a fun businessman who takes pride in the business he’s built and seems to hold no grudges. But David Suchet lets us know in bits and pieces that there’s some pretty deep conflicts swimming below Joe’s genial, Midwestern surface; and all along the ride Suchet holds onto our reins tightly, making us feel like we are in the drivers seat until suddenly it becomes clear that he’s gone some place we never expected and we are not going to be able to turn back from this, any more than Joe can. We have reached our final destination and it is too late for us to say we meant to go somewhere else; the cart comes undone as if its nails were all simultaneously pulled and we’re left with a spinning wagon wheel and the strange feeling that it all was supposed to turn out differently, somehow. Suchet handles the role effortlessly, as if he’d spent years working a factory and playing poker with his neighbors, and every drop of his character rang true for me.

I could say a few words about the set (nice foliage; bad lighting fixtures on the house and period inappropriate lawn furniture) or the costumes (Kate’s red dress deliciously appropriate; most of the cast could entirely use a retuning to a proper 1948 look), but they’re all just side notes to a brilliant production that left me feeling exhilarated as I walked out into the night. I know this isn’t exactly the “feel good hit of the summer,” but it’s a great show and it’s left me with a hankering for a trip to see “The Crucible” as it’s also on. As for you (dear reader), I highly advise you to book tickets for this admirable play.

*Note: the only thing I found utterly mysterious in this show was the reference to “kissing at Labor Day.” For you Englishers, Labor Day is our end of summer Bank Holiday but why the kissing? Per the quite comprehensive Gurthrie Study Guide, back in the 40s there used to be carnivals over this holiday, which featured kissing booths. Who knew?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 15th, 2010. All My Sons continues through October 2nd, 2010. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com, where they are nicely compiled in a big list.)

Review – The Great Game (part 1) – Tricycle theatre

May 8, 2009

Last night J and I went to the Tricycle to see the first third of “The Great Game,” the series of plays on Afghanistan newly commissioned for this event. The plays are set up so that you can see all of them at once, as an all-day event, or split them up into three different evenings, in chronological sets. I’m not really one to sit in a chair watching anything for eight hours, but the promise of new theater (which I like to support) broken into bite-sized chunks (several short plays in each set, meaning the chances of seeing really good stuff was higher and the amount of time you needed to survive a bad one was lower) was irresistable.

The night I went was the earliest set, from about 1860 through the 1920s, with brief modern interludes to provide background. We opened with the Taliban arresting a sign painter, doubtlessly for a variety of crimes (the hugely informative program suggested that listening to music, painting a woman, and not wearing a beard were all likely reasons for his arrest). We then slipped into the best play of the evening: “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” a play about the tragedy of the 16000 British soldiers “and camp followers” (including wives and servants) who died while attempting to escape Kabul for Jalalabad.

The text, about four soldiers waiting for “the other survivors” (there was only one) was enhanced by text from the diary of Lady Sale (performed by Jemma Regrave), who’d been left behind as a hostage. The performances of the four men (Daniel Betts, Tom McKay, Rick Warden, and Hugh Skinner) nicely captured the madness of war, especially the way they turned on the Afghani (Nabil Elouahabi) who came their way. Imperialism, cultural idiocy, the futility of invasive wars, religious animosity – so much came out in this short time of the problems that basically have not managed to go away. But, more importantly, it captured the eerie feeling of the unbelievable, savage deaths of so many to an extent that it almost felt like a ghost story. It was the highlight of the evening for me.

Of the remaining plays, I felt they suffered from overacting and belaboring their point. Siba Shakib’s “Duologue,” abut the heroine Malalai, who rallied her people to fight against the British, was practically a propaganda piece, and Jemima Rooper didn’t seem to have the least bit of humanity in her portrayal of this person. It is possible that this was really a problem of the script, but hard for me to tell. “Durand’s Line,” about the borders set by Sir Mortimer Durand for the nation of Afghanistan, almost had a comic-book portrayal of Abdur Rahman (Paul Battacharjee), the Amir of Afghanistan from 1880-1901 – he was like Ming the Merciless. The play succeeded in expressing the political and social reality of that time, so I think was somewhat successful, but the acting needed work (again – though actually Michael Cochrane seemed letter-perfect as the pushy civil servant who could easily ignore he was dealing with a man who boiled people alive, and I had no complaints about either Danny Rahim or Rick Warden’s performances) and I felt the character of Abdur was also extremely thin.

After intermission, we return to two eminently forgettable playlets: “Campaign” (by Amit Gupta) which appeared to primarily be concerned with feeding the audience the history of early 20th century Afghanistan via the character of the professor (Paul Bhattacharjee), and “Now is the Time,” which depicted the end of the rule of the man who attempted to modernize Afghanistan in the period the professor had just been describing. “Campaign” seemed like it might have been attempting to insert a little humor with its trope of “the civil servant trying to get some free information from an intellectual,” but I didn’t find it very funny and since I’d just read the story of Amanullah’s failure to bring Attaturk-style reforms to Afghanistan in the program, I also found it boring. It was like one of those horrible moments in SF novels where the author decides they need to explain the details of faster-than-light space flight that they’ve made up for their universe. “Now is the Time” (by Joy Wilkinson) had a real “End of the Tsars” feeling to it, but instead of really focusing on the human drama and the interaction between the characters, it just kept layering on the historical detail as if that were the real purpose of the play. It’s a shame, really, because the question of whether or not Amanullah Khan shot his own father to become king of Afghanistan was really interesting and highly relevant to the question of whether or not he’d just betrayed his father in law (Mahmud Tarzi, played by Vincent Ebrahim) in order to save his own skin. We’re talking serious tension, all of which is eventually let out like air from a balloon as the three leads pile back into their car and head off to Russia with their driver. It really just was not good enough, and Jemima Rooper was also failing to hit it as Soroya Tarzi, daughter of Mahmud and wife of Amanullah. To top it off, I swear their accents all sounded fake.

Overall, though, with such a fast moving pace (six stories between 8 PM and 10:05) and low ticket price (£13), I considered this a good evening – not enough to make me want to sit through the full day showing off all plays in the cycle, but enough to want to come back for part 2 or part 3.

(This review is for a play seen on May 6th, 2008. The Great Game continues through June 16th at The Tricycle. Support new theater – go see this show!)