Posts Tagged ‘Sam Kelly’

Review – Mike Leigh’s Grief – National Theater Cottlesloe

September 23, 2011

Normally I don’t identify a play first by its author’s name (unless there’s a chance of confusion with another play), but in all of the coverage of this play it’s been “Mike Leigh’s New Play” and the title has been completely missing up until just the last few days before opening. The buzz has been more about Mike Leigh and about how he’s “written a new play for the first time in years ZOMG and is directing it too!” and I have to admit as marketing it worked for me as I am a Mike Leigh fan – well, of his movies, anyway. But then I’ve only really seen Secrets and Lies, Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake, so I’m hardly a connoiseur, and I should mention I’ve also been to the quite grim play Ecstacy

And when I think about it, I think perhaps I have not thought enough about the stylistic unities of these works. All of the movies have made a great emotional impression on me, but, in retrospect, all of them seemed stunningly lacking in plot. (Okay, Vera Drake not so much, but still a bit.) Instead, they were just a bunch of seemingly random incidents captured along a forward moving timeline, all leading to … a feeling of … something … that life was slipping through my fingers. Maybe that was it. Anyway, it was a feeling I enjoyed being made to feel, so I decided Mike Leigh was a genius and have tried to make an effort to see his stuff when possible. Even the unrelieved misery of Ecstacy didn’t turn me away.

However, what is life really but a vale of sorrows? Grief, set in 1957 and 8, is about three characters who seem to live lives that give them no joy at all: widow Dorothy (Lesley Manville), her brother Edwin (Sam Kelly), and her daughter Victoria (Ruby Bentall) struggle side by side to get through days that seem completely meaningless. Gertrude (Marion Bailey) and Muriel (Wendy Notthingham), Dorothy’s old telephone operator friends, blow in and are cheery and upbeat much like Ewin’s friend Dr Hugh (David Horovitch); but the only support Dorothy and Edwin really have is each other. And it seems to be expressed primarily through their singing lovely old songs together, as if reliving the times when they had hopes for the future. None of these people touches each other; none of them acknowledge that any of them might be suffering (excepting when Dorothy actually bursts into tears, which earns her an offer to have a bath ran for her and a parting “Buck up”).

One of the greatest causes (and radiators) of misery is Victoria, a teenager whose shockingly hateful treatment of her mother had me cringing in my seat. I was given no clue as to what the source was of her anger and resentment, though it did certainly seem in keeping with modern teen angst, but it seemed to be incredibly vitriolic. Noticably, she seemed to be incapable of giving or receiving even the tiny, silent sympathies her mother and uncle shared, which made me think that perhaps she had a boyfriend on the sly or a drinking problem – but none of this ever comes out. She wound up as the puzzle to me at the end of the night, and, I think, the ultimate cause of this play’s failure to achieve greatness despite its unquestionable emotional impact. Leigh (and the actors if I understand his method correctly) has certainly created a household populated with realistic people, but without a bit more clue as to what is really making them tick, I can’t say he really took me anywhere. Instead, it was all a bit like – dare I say it – watching a movie about an extremely dysfunctional family. They didn’t succeed at the game of life, but I don’t need to care about why; it’s enough that I was able to share their grief. Or perhaps Leigh thought so. Me, I wanted more, much as I did when watching Ecstacy. Frankly, I can lock myself in the pit of human misery any time I feel like visiting my family, and having that experience recreated on stage doesn’t do a bit to give me more insight into the human condition. I want to learn a little more about how they tick. I can’t deny the brilliance of the performances – but theater needs more than just acting to be great. Overall, this was a good effort that I’m sure will be well received by those who like what Leigh does, but as a theater fan, I was disappointed.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thurday, September 22nd, 2011. It continues through January 28th. Although it’s currently sold out, keep coming back to the National’s website as tickets do get returned.)

Review – Remembrance Day – Royal Court

April 7, 2011

The Royal Court stands top in my rankings of London theaters, as the place where one can just go ahead and buy a ticket to whatever show they’re doing and not really worry too much about whether or not one is going to have a good night at the theater. Of course, I’m prejudiced a bit by my love of new plays; but Royal Court shines because they have, in addition to a commitment to new works, a really good vetting process; so while the National produces lots of new shows, their success ratio is low (and they offend me by their heavy hand with their production values); and the Donmar goes for excellence but has lost most of its experimentalism. So when I saw that a show was coming up for which I had room in the schedule (and room in the budget), I went ahead and bought tickets for
Remembrance Day without more than glancing at the synopsis.

It’s a new play, though, so I’ll assume you may want to know a bit about it: like many of my favorite plays, it’s a family drama, about a conflict across generations (in this case between a father, Sasha – Michael Nardone – and his daughter, Anya – Ruby Bentall). The conflict is set in a highly political and very specific context – that of the Russians (this family) still living in modern Latvia – but the seems in no way bound much by time or place a la The Crucible and The Rhinoceros. Fascism, nationalism, political extremism and manipulation, families being fractured as the members become partisans … these topics are sadly universal and make the play greatly enjoyable even if you’re completely ignorant about Latvia.

In this storm of emotion and rhetoric we have some richly drawn characters that speak well to Aleksey Scherbak’s authorial skills, with the kind of details that take what could have been cartoons and make them into believable people. Old soldier Paulis (Sam Kelly) has a bad temper but a strong affection for sausage; his fellow fighter Valdis (Ewan Hooper) can look on both his service to three different armies and his wrongful stint in the gulag (seven years!) with the distance age brings. Sasha starts out being gruff but reveals much stronger depths than needed; even his son “gimme some money” Lyosha (Iwan Rheon) has got is game going on. Glowering over all of them is the intensely burning brand that is Anya, who starts sweet and doe-eyed, hanging out with the adorable leader of the youth wing of the Russian political party, then slowly … well, changes. It’s the kind of evolution you can see many people making around the world while the cameras aren’t, completely believable, and … well, there was no hiding from the fact that this play wasn’t just specific to the problem that one small country is having right now.

The directing and acting are quite good. Bentall is occasionally just a little bit too fanatical for me, especially when she’s just staring at someone and not talking … it interrupted her believability. The political hacks (Luke Norris and Nick Court) spew out butter and bile with equal enthusiasm; I feel they weren’t meant to be entirely believable, more representatives of a certain mindset. Meanwhile, the old men made glaring the hamfisted acting of When We Are Married, showing what fine old actors can really do on stage: sparking as opposites on the ideological spectrum but also making it clear what held them together as friends. And Nardone eventually outshines the daughter as he believably struggles with extreme changes within his family, giving a performance that made me forget I was watching someone act. Meanwhile, director Michael Longhurst, if I’m reading the script correctly, has made a powerful point by interleaving Valdis’ and Sasha’s family’s apartments. They may be separate on paper, but in reality, these people who are spending so much time defining how different they are from each other have become completely intertwined in each other’s lives, and separating them seems no more possibly than removing one half of a human heart without killing the patient.

All of this intense emotion took place in about eighty-five minutes and has left me thinking about what happened for the past few days. The plot details may be irrelevant (and I’m not wanting to tell too much about it), but there is no doubt that as a portrait of how people move toward political extremism, this play is very powerful, and I suspect will be getting produced regularly after its debut wraps.

(This review is for a production that took place on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011. It continues through April 16th.)