Monday, 26 November 2007

Reviews: Sweet William, Arcola; The Importance of Being Earnest, Richmond; A Night in November, Trafalgar Studios; Dealer's Choice, Menier

Sweet William, Arcola

After engagements in some of the more genteel regions of these Isles, Michael Pennington brings his one man conversation piece to the somewhat unlikely setting of the Arcola in Dalston (and it will play the Trafalgar Studios in February next year), hitherto known for rather more cutting edge work. This is a very worthwhile and interesting evening of somewhat gentle amusement, entertainment and education, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense at all, sometimes a bit of gentility can be welcomed in a world inner city drama and social realist theatre. Listening to Pennington in generally is probably quite interesting, but here, talking about his abiding and consuming passion for Shakespeare, his words really take off. It is such a pleasure to hear somebody as intelligent and experienced as Pennington talking with such erudition and poise about a genuine, infectious passion, one in which so many of us share (though I have only seen 35 of Shakespeare’s plays, unlike Pennington who has probably acted in more Shakespeare parts than I’ve had hot dinners). Pennington (who also directs himself) gives us no flights of rhetorical fancy, overblown acting or ham sandwiches (as one person shows can often do), he gives us often overlooked snippets carefully acted out and naturally flowing from his thoughtful personal monologue. A charming evening, with a true gent of the British stage.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Richmond (tour and then West End).

What has happened to Peter Gill Of late? His production of Gaslight at the Old Vic was abysmal, thought the terrible material doesn’t help, and this rather perfunctory production of The Importance of Being Earnest is not exactly meticulous (I word that I would previously associated with Gill; Look Back in Anger, The Voysey Inheritance, Epitaph for George Dillon, Days of Wine and Roses, Scenes from the Big Picture and The York Realist, all providing me with striking memories of excellent productions, even if the play was lacking as with George Dillon). It alls seems like the cast are just going through the motions (‘oh, a Saturday matinee at Richmond, we don’t have to bother much!’), and I hardly managed to raise a laugh in any of the three acts. Penelope Keith is Lady Bracknell, and she is on autopilot, just like in Blithe Spirit a few years back, I’m sure the audience had all come to see her, but I’d like to see a just a shade of the character in the play, not just the persona the actress constantly portrays (it’s almost commedia dell'arte), why cast Ms Keith in these circumstances I hear you ask? Well, precisely.

The rest of the cast are not up to much either, at least we know what to expect from Ms Keith, and indeed get it in spades, the central male characters (Jack and Algernon, played by Harry Hadden-Patton and William Ellis respectively) were so lifeless I wanted to use the emergency defibrillator in order revive them and bring the into Wilde’s world of brittle comedy (they were certainly less formidable than the wonderful elderly Richmond matrons). Daisy Haggard as Gwendolen was totally miscast, she just has too much of the 21st century about her, and I’ll leave it at that. I sincerely hope that I saw the production on a very off day, otherwise a substantial amount of theatregoers will be paying a substantial amount more (than the relatively tame Richmond prices) to see a flat production which barley merits a tour, let alone a West End transfer and price hike (the sets were also pretty rickety, but maybe they’ll scale up for the West End. Most likely not).

A Night in November, Trafalgar Studios

The television comedian Patrick Kielty makes his stage debut in a revival of Mare Jones’s one map play, set around the acrimonious 1993 Eire v Northern Ireland football match, and the following year’s world cup, which the Republic qualified for and the North didn’t. It is really a paean to Irish brotherhood, which also highlights the disgusting nature of bigotry, racism and xenophobia in sport (and thus wider society) which can all so casually be dismissed as heat of the moment or unimportant the next day, but the play shows that deep seated prejudices are difficult to overcome without actually understanding the other groups point of view (simply suppressing a hatred, coming to a working agreement with those you dislike or mistrust, dose not kill the hatred). I’m no great fan of Jones, but watching this play for the first time (directed by Ian McElhinney), I was impressed at how natural and easy the play seemed (as compared to laboured, or at least conscious, oirish-ness in other works). Kielty is very good as the genial everyman who comes to a better understanding of himself through opposition to what he experiences on the sectarian football terraces and ends up supporting the Republic in the ’94 world cup. Naturally this all come easily, and the open Southern Irish are not at all prejudiced against this nominally Protestant dole clerk from Belfast, but that is a small gripe (and genuinely the Republic is a very friendly place form my experience and the Irish are not bigoted against their Northern brethren as far as I can casually observe). Unfortunately the play lags a little bit for me towards the end (you could happily cut the interval and 10 minutes off the text), but this is despite Kielty’s charming performance. It is strange to think of a grown man in this country never visiting a large section of a city he has lived in for all of his life, simply because of his enforced religious affiliation. Thought this is not exactly a revelatory experience, it is a funny night at the theatre with amiable company.

Dealer’s Choice, Menier (transferring to Trafalgar Studios)

Patrick Marber’s 1995 play receives a meticulous production at the increasingly influential Menier Chocolate Factory, a venue that has had a superb track record of success in only a few short years of operation, and which now has a reach far beyond the London fringe, all the way to Broadway (their stunning Olivier Award winning production of Sunday in the Park With George, directed by Sam Buntrock, is opening at Studio 54 soon, with the original London leads too; get your tickets now).

Sam West (maybe I’ll call him the new Peter Gill?) really has directed this all male piece marvellously, he and his brilliant cast don’t put a foot wrong. In fact the only bum notes comes from the author, and a slightly unfortunate updating of the script, although I should stress that this is a minor quibble and doesn’t affect the overall quality of the production much, but it sure does niggle me (why do we need a Germany ’06 shirt, trips to the Tate Modern and the like? Also restaurants in public toilets in East London, a comedy plot throughout the play, are actually a reality, and any real estate sold for peanuts in the East End would be a shrewd and admired investment. See, the updating really has opened up a can of worms which 1995 doesn’t). The play, set around a late night poker game amongst restaurant staff, is actually all about the interactions of men, and particularly the central father son relationship. Marber has a great ear for detail, and his words could be heard coming from the mouths of men across the country, but his play, in focusing incident and dialogue, as drama generally does, gives us a wonderfully character study of these men. The action of the poker game is genuinely involving, even for absolute novices like me, and the tension really becomes intense towards the end of the game (though mainly due to the story and not the cards or the money it has to be said), and the threat of violence at one point rears its head, it is electrifying. The breaking of trust between father and son (perhaps not for the first time), the ignorance of an innocent, the dreams that will never come to fruition, all these interesting subjects are raised in Dealer’s Choice, but again with the utmost fluidity and naturalness. You can enjoy Dealer’s Choice as a comedy, as a great story, or a superb example of ensemble acting. Certainly a highlight for the West End this Christmas.

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