Pinter 1, Pinter at the Pinter season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 
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Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. I saw Pinter 2 first. Pinter 2, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

Pinter 1 is a collection of 9 short plays, sketches and poems, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. The are generally political, often about authoritarianism, occasionally funny but broadly bleak and dark. The sketches “Press Conference”, “The Pres and an Officer” and the poem “American Football” are dark comedy but still light relief among the rest of the fare on offer here. “The Pres and an Officer” was discovered late last year, almost 10 years after his death. It seems to be so precisely what we would expect Pinter to say about Donald Trump that, if it is truly a Pinter piece, it is eerily prescient.

It is a measure of grimness of the writing that the next lightest piece is a poem called “Death”. This is lyrical, sad and it is beautifully delivered by Maggie Steed. “Precisely” is a comedy sketch about a nuclear holocaust. “The New World Order” a sketch about torture. “Mountain Language” is a moving short piece about the suppression of a language by an authoritarian state. The acting is phenomenal. Jonjo O’Neill is excellent as various political bullies in the pieces named above.

“One for the Road” is a piece about authoritarian interrogation. A man, wife, and their 7 year old son are interrogated in separate rooms by a tyrannical bully, played by Antony Sher. The violence is implied, as it all happens in the rooms we are not watching at the time, however it is actually more palpable because of this. A truly magnificent piece of writing, it was surely instrumental in his receiving of the Nobel Prize for literature, but in no way is it an easy watch. Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn are both amazing as the husband and wife.

They also play the husband and wife in “Ashes to Ashes”.  This is a later play, more abstract in narrative, though still dark in tone, experimental in the shifting of subject matter. It could be about the loss of a child, about the holocaust, about an abusive marriage or even about a murder. It hints at these, changes focus and moves on…  It is an interesting and brave piece, written by an ambitious author, confident of his ability.

All the pieces bar the last are directed by Jamie Lloyd and have a cold, metal, prison-cell like setting which suit the mood of the pieces. “Ashes to Ashes” is directed by Lia Williams, this is set in a living room and changes in lighting match the flow of the dialogue. It is ingenious how she makes the set feel more intimate without making it feel more warm.

Pinter 1 is a hard watch, I can’t imagine how tough it must be to act each day. It is dark and bleak with implied violence, both mental and physical. It may be emotionally draining, but the writing is strong, the themes are universal and the acting is tremendous. To say that I enjoyed it would not be entirely accurate, but I am really pleased to have seen it and if it were to return in at some point in the future, I would certainly gather together my mental strength and go to see it again. Warning! This collection is stimulating and disturbing and is definitely one to avoid on date night.

 
 
 
 

Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.

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Strictly Ballroom is a crowd pleasing juke box musical. It certainly has a lot of good things going for it. The film, on which is based, is a classic Australian indie comedy of the early ’90s and it is wonderfully odd and funny. The songs are popular upbeat singalong tunes that the audience will know and love. The cast is great and the director and choreographer have some great musicals on their CV.

The show has been rewritten for the stage and a new character, a narrator, has been added. The idea is brilliant, he sings the songs, adds perspective to the larger than life characters and propels the action along with some knowing repartee. Matt Cardle plays this part, Wally Strand, and he does a good job. He has a great voice and he is nicely self deprecating. However there are 35 different songs in this 2 hour show, many of them delivered in two, three or more pieces. He rarely get to sing more than one bar without stopping. It would have been lovely to listen to a complete song in one go, instead of hearing them broken up into fragments.

The story has not been changed from the film and is simple but solid. The difference is that, in the film it was mostly played straight and the characters were unintentionally amusing. Here we have cartoon-like caricatures played for laughs and the comedy feels strained at times. There are funny lines and the caricatures are comical. The acting is  good, Matthew Stevens and Anna Francolini’s over the top performances as Doug and Shirley Hastings were both enjoyable.

Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen are both good dancers and excellent as Scott and Fran. The ensemble look good, but the stage at the Piccadilly is too small fit the entire company  and the group set pieces feel cramped and uncomfortable.

The set is sparse and effective, it needs to be because of the lack of space. The costumes are wonderfully sparkly and camp. “Strictly Ballroom, the Musical” has been damned with faint praise, the show is fun and the audience gave it a warm reception. It is a good show, but the sum does not quite live up to all its parts. I liked it but the expectations are high and, in London’s West End, the competition is fierce.

 
 

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

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Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

Langan's Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1

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Langan’s Brasserie has been in Stratton Street since 1976. It was a favourite of mine in the 1980s but I think I haven’t been in over 25 years. I am surprised how little has changed in that time and more surprised at how that pleased me, it was like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend in the street.
Langan’s is smart without being pretentious, don’t expect anything big or flashy, but they do what they do very well. It is the perfect restaurant for a special occasion, or if there is a large group meeting for a meal. On arrival, we were shown to a lounge area, to order a drink while we awaited the rest of our party. When everyone had arrived, the Maître D’ showed us to our table while the waiter transferred our drinks.
The décor, if my memory is accurate, is still as it was in the 1980s. This consists of plain cream walls covered in mixed photos, paintings and magazine sketches. One wall has many large windows, making the room bright and airy at lunch or in the early evening. The tables are set with white linen tablecloths, good quality crockery and glassware. The room feels smart when you enter. The menu is a mixture of French and English dishes all well known. The soufflé with anchovy sauce is wonderful and the Caesar salad is excellent. Both of these are quite substantial for starters. The main course portion sizes are big too, there is nothing too unusual on the list but we had five different main dishes at our table and each one was prepared very well.
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The wine list is extensive, a surprising amount of them are served by the glass. The service was really very good, there are plenty of staff, they seemed unhurried but were always there when we needed them. The actual menu itself is attractive, designed by David Hockney. The restaurant was quite full and, although we ate early, we never felt rushed, or that the table would be needed again at a certain time, I believe that we would been allowed to linger as long as we wished.
Langan’s is not cheap, but it is very centrally located and the food, service and ambience are reliably good. It is the perfect example of a great 1980s London/Paris Brasserie and long may it continue to be so. I hope that I will not have so long between visits in future.

The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1

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The Ferryman is a kitchen sink drama with an epic storyline. Apart from the prologue, it is totally set in the large kitchen of a family farmhouse outside Derry. The action is a day and a half in the lives of the extended family that resides there. But, the themes are huge, its about family and war, about love and loyalty, about freedom fighting and terrorism, and it tells these stories through short interwoven family interactions that come and go throughout the play that gradually meld together to make a complex tapestry.
Jez Butterworth has been spoken of as one of the best writers around today, and with  The Ferryman he delivers. The language and the narrative are superlative, it is the writing of someone both confident and ambitious. He is brave to wind traditional songs and ancient stories through the dialogue and he is talented pull it off so well.
The direction is awesome, there are 17 characters in this play, without counting the live goose, rabbit or the baby. Just moving them all around the stage must have been a major task but, Sam Mendes makes the whole setting feel real,  natural and, even simple.
The cast is also fabulous, lots of lovely performances from so many different actors. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly are great as Quinn and Caitlin, but right through the cast there were great turns. I loved Rob Malone as the troubled Oisin. Brid Brennan had a scene stealing part as Aunt Maggie Faraway and she played it perfectly. Dearbhla Molloy and Des McAleer are wonderful as Aunt Patricia and Uncle Pat.
As you can tell, I loved this show. I have to finish because I am about to run out of superlatives. This is a play that will become a classic piece of literature that will be on school curricula.
 
 

Angels In America, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Angels in America is operatic in its scale. It has huge universal themes, it takes on religion, politics and the future of the planet. At its core though, are three individual small stories that investigate the meaning of love and abandonment. It can be at times; grandiose, bombastic, histrionic and at others; tender, bitchy or warm. The show is set in 1985 New York at the start of the AIDS crisis, with Ronald Reagan just having been elected for his second term.
It is an awe inspiringly big production. The set is amazing. There are not many theatres in the world with stages large enough to contain the more expansive pieces, but there are also intimate scenes set in small a room or around a single hospital bed. I will be surprised if Ian MacNeil does not win an award for his set design. The direction is very clever, the angel is astonishingly large, when it arrives, yet the scene involving a small puppetry diorama is equally compelling.
The cast is astounding and their performances are excellent. Every single person in the production is at the top of their game, so it almost seems unfair to pick out favourites but…. Andrew Garfield is a revelation, I’d only seen him as Spider-Man before, and this is quite different! Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is fab-u-lous (three full syllables) as Belize, he is given some of the best lines in the show, and he delivers them well.  Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn and manages to make him cruel, contemptible and charismatic.
This show is a marathon at over seven and a half hours for both parts, but it passes surprisingly quickly. I did not feel the time going at all. I commend its ambition, I admire its uncompromising stance and I revere its wonderful production values. Angels in America one-off theatrical experience.

Sing Street (dir. John Carney) 2016

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This film is written and directed by John Carney. He has a huge talent for writing likeable and recognisable characters. All of his films have some fantastic original songs in them  and this one mixes together a great 1980s soundtrack with some excellent original material.
The story is lovely, a boy forming a post-punk rock band to impress a girl who is out of his league, and to impress his stoner older brother, who he idolises. The older brother is played by Jack Reynor, who is outstanding and all but steals the show.
My one difficulty with the film was suspending my disbelief, the band became too good at playing their instruments too quickly and the happy ending was almost sad, because, as a walk off into the sunset, it was so doomed to end in disaster. This mattered because I liked everyone involved so much that I at least wanted them to have some realistic chance of success.
Having said that, this film is very enjoyable and it is rare that a writer can make you like almost everyone in a film, even the school bully.

Stranger Things, TV Series, 2016(Netflix)

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Once in a while a series comes along that hits all the right spots. This eight part sci-fi show, on Netflix, does just that.
Set in 1983, in a small town in Indiana, a 12 year old boy goes missing on his way home after spending the evening playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. During the eight episodes, spent trying to work out what happened to him, it references many science fiction films, horror story books, and conspiracy theory TV series that you can remember from the intervening period.
The story is pulpy, which is just as it should be, but it is gripping – always making you want to know what the next episode will bring. The cast is great, Winona Ryder is perfect as the distressed mother and her interaction with David Harbour as the town sheriff is a joy. The dialogue is witty and knowing, and the soundtrack is spot on.
What made this series stand out for me, was all the nostalgic homages throughout the show; a set piece from ET,  a scene from Stand By Me, quotes from the Exorcist,  bedroom posters from 1980s horror films, people reading and talking about Stephen King books. The whole series is peppered with these references and spotting them added an extra dimension to our enjoyment of the show.
This is a great addition to the Netflix cannon, and if you are looking for easy, absorbing escapism, I recommend Stranger Things.