Stories, National Theatre, South Bank London SE1

Stories

About a year ago. I saw Nina Raine’s last play, Consent, also at the Dorfman Theatre here at the National.  It was the strength of the writing in that production that drew me to see Stories. This is a play about Anna, a woman approaching 40, who is desperate to have a baby. She does not have a partner and she is investigating the options available to her as a would be single mother.

The Dorfman theatre is an intimate venue when laid out in the round, suited to the living room settings of this play. The show consists of multiple short scenes and the automated set changes where the sections of the floor rise to make a table or slide in to form a bed are very cleverly done. They contribute well to the maintaining the pace of the drama, through the constant scene changes. The clean IKEA lines also felt nicely contemporary.

Anna is played by Claudie Blakely with a controlled desperation, knowing that if she shows it too much, that she will frighten baby fathers off. Sam Troughton plays all the prospective sperm donors and he is almost too good at this, in that his changing performances are very funny and at times this becomes the focus of the play,  distracting your attention from the main storyline. Anna is the only person in the entire play that is one person playing one part and this diminishes the clarity of the piece somewhat.

Brian Vernel is excellent as Anna’s younger brother and Stephen Boxer is fantastic as her Dad. They have great lines and the spiky but caring relationship the three of them have is beautifully conveyed. The rest of the characters are less fully rounded and although they have some very funny lines, they are sometimes two dimensional ciphers. I found this particularly true of Natasha and Girl. I did realise, eventually, that they are meant to represent Anna’s inner child and inner parent, but I am not sure what they added to the story.

I think there might be brilliant play in here, but the story is not presented clearly enough to follow easily. Nina Raine is a fantastic author, there are probably few writers who can capture current bar and dinner table conversations as well or as wittily. This is not the ground breaking piece that she will one day write, but I enjoyed it well enough and I will continue to look out for shows that she writes in the future.

 

Gillray's Steakhouse & Bar, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1

Gillrays

This restaurant is inside the Marriott County Hall hotel. If you arrive by car the entrance is from Westminster Bridge Road through the hotel. The most attractive entrance though, is from Queens Walk, beside the river Thames. A sweep of steps leads you up from the walkway into a bright relaxed bar area and the restaurant entrance is a few steps to the right inside the door.

The room is sunlit and airy, light wood walls with large windows along one side overlooking the river. The view is lovely on a summer evening; people walking beside the river, the London Eye to the right and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament across the Thames to the left. We were here quite early, a pre-theatre dinner before a show at the National, which is a couple of hundred metres away along the South Bank. They have a pre and post theatre offer, it has a wider choice than many set menus and it is good value too.

There is a starter of chicken and mushroom roll, this is pleasantly spicy, a nice combination of flavours. We also tried the crusted pan fried mackerel, which was really a Caesar salad with mackerel, also good – the crusted fish taking the place of croutons. There is a choice of six mains, three steaks, a lamb, a fish dish and a vegetarian choice. The rib eye was nice, a little undersealed to be perfect but a good flavour. The lamb yorkie pie is a lamb casserole inside a large Yorkshire pudding, a clever serving idea. The lamb was nice, although the Yorkshire was more like a carvery pudding which is made in advance and kept warm.

I felt that the drinks were a little overpriced, the beer especially. The happy hour offer of a house gin and tonic for a fiver is not necessarily so wise, as this makes one aware of how much one might be paying for a branded gin at other times. The service was good, the staff were attentive and available whenever we needed them.

Overall, we had an enjoyable dinner in very pleasant surroundings, so if you have a show on the Southbank, Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar is certainly worth considering.

Antony & Cleopatra, National Theatre, South Bank, London

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Antony & Cleopatra is always a big undertaking. The play is an uneasy mix of love and war, it requires a wide variety of settings, scenes and textures and it is usual that a choice is made to make it either bellicose or romantic. Simon Godwin has made the brave decision to have it both ways. The talent and apparatus that are at his disposal at the Olivier theatre allow him to pull it off triumphantly.

The cast is high quality and on top form. The set and choreography are stars in their own right. Hildegard Bechtler, set designer and Evie Gurney, costume designer do a wonderful job.  I doubt that it would be possible to do the transformations from opulent Alexandria, through Roman war rooms to topside ship decks, with such efficiency on any other stage. It is beautifully done and gives the piece a cinematic quality that it is uncommon to see in the theatre. they have lavished money, care and attention to detail on this production and it has not gone to waste. The costumes are sumptuous, Cleopatra really does dress like a queen.

The huge change in ambience between the military settings and the romantic ones make it easy to see the dichotomy that Antony faces between duty and desire. He begins the play lounging by the pool but it not long before he is army fatigues. Ralph Fiennes plays Antony with a hint of midlife crisis, but when he is with Cleopatra there is never any doubt of his love for her. The chemistry between them is palpable, they are sultry and sensual, the perfect star crossed couple. Sophie Okonedo is every inch the Egyptian Queen, expecting adoration and receiving it; sharp and soft,  petulant and magnanimous, veering between vulnerable and dangerous. She owned the role, it feels like the part she was born to play.

The acting throughout is very good, Tim McMullan is excellent as Enobarbus. Hannah Morrish brings out the role of Octavia well, we see she is poorly used by Caesar as well as Antony, but takes what slight revenge she can. Fisayo Akinade is funny and sad as Eros, Antony’s freed slave.

Antony & Cleopatra is three and a half hours long, however there are a couple of light and funny scenes and director, Simon Godwin, makes good use of these to give relief from the tension and high drama. The ending of this play is often difficult to stage, but here it is done in a very authentic manner. There is a glimmer of compassion to the finale of  this play, that is not often there in Shakespearean tragedy. A word of warning to those who suffer from ophidiophobia – you may wish to get seats a little way back from the stage.

Everything about this show oozes high production values, right down to the programme, which has copious information about the background to the play. This is exactly the type of production that gives the National Theatre its worldwide renown.

House, Restaurant & Bar, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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House is the name of the most upmarket restaurant in the National Theatre complex. It is open from 5pm to 11pm daily, and it does lunch on the afternoons when there is a matinee performance. The décor is modern and understated. The linen is crisp and white. The cutlery, china and glassware are high quality. The sound level is low, so conversation is clear. They give warning announcements when shows are about to start. All in all, the perfect place to meet for pre or post theatre dinner.

They offer a set menu as well as an a la carte. The set menu is good value but the choice can be limited, the only vegetarian option was asparagus for both starter and main course on the day we were there. The a la carte menu is relatively short too, but this is often a good thing, it keeps the quality of the food high. The goat’s cheese brulee starter was delicious, although it was not not particularly brulee. The trout was good too, the presentation of both was excellent.

The steak main course was good, rump cap is not the greatest cut but it was cooked nicely. The plaice was fine too. The nicest of the three mains was the smoked pork belly – the meat was succulent and full of flavour, it went very well with the cabbage, which had a hint of sweetness and a good crispiness.  Once again, care had gone into the presentation, they all looked very appetising as they arrived to the table.

We ordered desert too. Like the other courses, they looked fantastic, tasted good and the portion size was modest. The wine list has a good range but quite expensive for what they are. Service was impeccable, efficient and unobtrusive.

It is usually relatively easy to get a table except on opening nights or press nights. It was less than half full on the evening we were there, but this was after the show. It would be safest to book if you wish to eat just before curtain up.  Everything about House is good; the food, the service, the ambience, but the cynic in me says that they are aware that people will pay a premium for the convenience and this is reflected in their prices.

Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

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This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

Circolombia, Underbelly Festival, Southbank, London

 

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This photo is courtesy of @tcspr.

 

Let’s start with the Underbelly Festival itself. Over the past 10 years this has become a symbol of summer on the Southbank. Each year it seems to get bigger and last longer. It started as an event around a giant inflatable purple cow in a coach park on Belvedere Road and used to be called Udderbelly. Now the cow appears to have gone (surely I didn’t miss it?!) but it has two covered performance spaces, at least four bars, street food stalls, plenty of outdoor seating and it lasts half the year – from early April until late September.

The shows consist of comedy, circus, music and cabaret, usually with a couple of silent discos thrown in through the season. The content varies from full on family entertainment to risqué burlesque. The tickets are generally pretty cheap for central London although many of the shows get booked up very quickly. You can just go in to use the bars and seating for free though, so its a nice place to meet friends even if you are not seeing a show – think Box Park without the claustrophobia of the box!

Circolombia are a  fourteen strong circus/dance/music troupe from Colombia and the show they present is part concert, part circus. They sing, they dance, they rap and they display awesome tumbling skills and wonderful aerial work. It all works very well together and you can see why they have built a big international reputation from their global tours. The music enhances the atmosphere for the circus work and you can feel the tension rise when the place quietens for a particularly daring routine.

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The routines are jaw dropping. The tumbling skills are immense, from rolling under and over a see-saw as it rocks, to throwing a performer onto the shoulders of another person who is already balanced on the shoulders of a third. There is one where one performer does acrobatics inside a circular frame, while that frame is balanced on the forehead of a man below.

The aerial feats are equally amazing, varying from solo high rope tumbling to double acrobatics with both people suspended by just a rope around the neck of one of them. At one point a performer is lifted high into the air by a ribbon held in his teeth, the person lifting him is suspended by her legs and carrying that ribbon by her teeth. One cannot help but be moved by both their strength and their trust.

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The show is short, at only an hour long, and the quality is of the highest order, there is no filler here, there were audible gasps from the audience throughout the show. I hope the acts are not actually as risky as they make them appear, because there is a sense of jeopardy, watching them in such a small space, you are aware that these are real people, taking real risks and this adds to the intensity of the performance.

Circolombia at the Underbelly Festival is a fantastic, exciting evening out and they have a number of dates here before moving on to the Edinburgh Festival in August. If you are unable to catch them here – or there, I urge you to look out for them, in case they come to a venue near you.

Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

Consent, National Theatre, South Bank, London

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The reviews for this show had been so good, but it was sold out. I know that NT have a few restricted view seats that they sell at 9.30 on the day. I got there at 9.20 and BINGO! I was in. The seat was £15 and I wouldn’t have called it restricted view at all. Apparently some are less good, but I was only second in the queue, and the view was perfect.
The reviews are well deserved, the writing is dazzling. Nina Raine is a huge talent with a wonderful ear for dialogue. She tackles some really complex subjects and manages to make you aware of each different person’s point of view,  see the validity in it, and even make it funny! We are going to hear a lot more of Nina Raine as a playwright.
Of course, this writing would come to nought if the actors weren’t able to deliver, and here we have six main characters of talent, all on top form, and all buoyed by the knowledge that they have great material to work with. Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin are excellent as the couple, Kitty and Edward, managing to make us loathe some of their actions while still understanding the reasons behind them. Adam James is brilliant as Jake, the husband who is able to rationalise his bad behaviour, and Priyanga Burford is perfect as his witty intelligent wife, who is laughing at herself for accepting it.
The set is simple and clever; an array of lights hang above the stage, and different ones lower and light, to convey which home we are in. The direction is uncomplicated; allowing the dialogue to speak for itself. Everything about this production is top quality.
I loved this play. I know it is sold out, but it is worth going along in the morning; to see if you can get day tickets, or if you hear of it getting a transfer or a revival; make sure that you are quick off the mark.