London (June 2015)

London

  • Communicating Doors, 6/9/15 (Tue), Menier Chocolate Factory
  • Gypsy, 6/10/15 (Wed), West End
  • Bad Jews, 6/10/15 (Wed), West End
  • American Buffalo, 6/12/15 (Fri), West End
  • Rules for Living, 6/13/15 (Sat), National Theatre
  • King John, 6/13/15 (Sat), Sam Wanamaker Theatre

Communicating Doors is a fascinating piece by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn that seems to have taken its inspiration from Back to the Future, along with a bit of Psycho and Carrie. It is the year 2020. A prostitute called to a hotel room for a job finds herself in mortal danger when she learns that the wheezing old client has a nasty habit of killing his wives and anyone else in the way. When she escapes through a door supposedly connected to the next room, she ends up in the same room – but in the year 2000. There she finds that man’s second wife, who she knows from the previous scene will be murdered by the husband’s lackey that very afternoon.

This starts a series of going back and forth through the door, which also takes the second wife back 20 years to the honeymoon night of the husband’s first wife, also known to be a victim. All sorts of craziness occurs in between, including the pursuit by both the younger and older versions of the husband’s murderous “business partner”. The plot, a thriller of sorts (albeit a very funny one), is thoroughly logical in its progress and extremely well constructed, holding up perfectly through the beautiful ending. The characters are all fun, but the standout, story-wise and acting-wise, was the prostitute, who goes through an amazing transformation after pieces of the past are rearranged. I choked up at the last scene, where she makes a wonderful discovery. I loved this show.

Gypsy: Finally, after problematic performances by Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, a near-perfect Rose in Imelda Staunton. Her approach never felt like “acting” as with the other two; she played the character straight, completely inhabiting her character as she bulldozes her way through her daughters’ lives. She also sang her songs like she meant them, again without resorting to artificial gestures in an attempt to make it interesting. It was a supremely convincing portrayal, on a par with Tyne Daly’s great performance way back when.

Her daughter was very good as the young Louise (despite occasional accent problems), less so as Gypsy Rose Lee. She didn’t really exude sexiness or stardom, especially in the strip act. It was professional but not overly convincing. The father and Tulsa were both excellent. The strip actresses were okay, and their number is pretty much indestructible anyway. But everything in this show depends on a strong Rose at the center, and they had one. Super orchestra as well.

The only major slipup was the ending. They had Rose crying on Gypsy’s shoulder, which seems out of character. When she rants on again, Gypsy just turns and walks off coldly, to which Rose quickly and meekly follows behind, head held low. That showed a lack of imagination, taking away from Gypsy’s incredible generosity in taking her mother back and boosting her bruised ego. It was a shame after such a great rendition of “Rose’s Turn” (with the Angela Lansbury ending). But overall, this was a terrific production of a terrific show.

Bad Jews: I didn’t know much about this show but was intrigued by the name. An excitable 20-something and her reticent cousin have attended their grandfather’s funeral. They are staying together in a small room, which they are going to share with the cousin’s brother. She is furious when the brother shows up a day late, bringing along a blonde shiksa no less, because he claims to have lost his phone in the show while skiing.

The drama centers on a pendant with the Hebrew word chai (life) that the grandfather has worn since being in a concentration camp. The girl, who is planning to be a rabbi and live in Israel, wants it as a symbol of Jewishness. The brother wants to give it to his girlfriend when he proposes to her, seeing it as a symbol of humanity. That’s where the fireworks start, including plenty of loud, vicious and jaw-dropping exchanges – she says he’s a self-hating Jew who feels the world would be better without Jews at all, he accuses her of making up the whole story about an Israeli soldier lover, and much more. The final calm moments, when the taciturn cousin quietly reveals his own secret, were shattering.

This is a high-energy show with probably more screaming and ranting than necessary, but leaving no doubt as to the utter convictions of the characters. It was also a very funny show, the highlight being the shiksa’s hilariously inept attempt to sing “Summertime”. The main woman had the showiest role and certainly played it to the hilt, but all of the young actors were top notch. I found the quiet one the most intriguing for some reason. A provocative and worthwhile show, though it takes energy just to watch it.

I saw American Buffalo mainly because of the casting since John Goodman seemed such a perfect choice. Don (Goodman), who owns a junk shop, has sold a buffalo nickel to a customer but comes to suspect it is worth a lot more than he charged. He and his young helper Bob (Tom Sturridge) plan to steal the coin back, but Bob has lost track of the customer. He later reports that he saw the guy leaving with a suitcase, suggesting that the house is empty.

Don then plans to rob the house. His friend Teach (Damian Lewis) arrives and wants in on the scheme, then gradually eases Bob out, convincing Don that the young boy is too inexperienced. Don wants his poker buddy to be a part of it as well, which Teach reluctantly accepts. When the poker guy fails to show and Bob comes back claiming to have found another buffalo nickel, they think he’s pulled off the job himself with the poker buddy and is trying to sell them the old nickel. Teach beats him mercilessly, only to learn that the nickel really is another one that he had bought from a coin dealer because he felt bad about losing track of the customer.

The show is a brutal story of friendship and betrayal and back again. The language is rough and not always to the point, but the characterizations are superb. Goodman seemed most at home in his role, but all three actors were pretty fearless in their portrayals. Sturridge played Bob memorably as something of a halfwit, with a twisted voice and body, while Lewis was supremely overconfident as every-man-for-himself Teach. Great ensemble playing, squeezing all the laughs from the script even as they maintained the high tension surrounding the intended burglary (police cruising, guy failing to show, Bob’s bumbling explanations).

The director admirably left the show in 1975, and the costumes (especially Teach’s god-awful suit and sideburns) and acting were perfect in that context. The set was a fantastic jumble of junk, topped by an abstract mix of bicycles and chairs and other paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling. An excellent production.

I went to Rules for Living thinking I was seeing a rare production of the 1960s classic The Ruling Class, which had played until a few weeks earlier. This one turned out to be a new show about a family – a well-to-do lawyer and his bouncy girlfriend, his middling younger brother and no-nonsense wife (who is over-protective of their sick daughter upstairs), their domineering mother, and their famously lascivious father just out of hospital – gathering for the annual Christmas meal, where secrets are of course revealed and all falls into chaos. Still, it’s all about the execution, and this show delivered, with involving characters and a clear storyline featuring several interweaving dramas among the family members. It all felt very Ayckbourn-y, albeit in a more acid tone.

The brothers both turn out to be frustrated failures in their own mind – the indecisive lawyer was a would-be actor, and the acerbic mid-level worker had aimed to be a cricketer until he choked at a big moment. The lawyer has been dating the actress, a somewhat nervous and neurotic type who jokes to cover up her insecurities. She lures him into proposing to her, but it becomes clear that he is more interested in his brother’s wife, who is having serious problems in her marriage. Meanwhile, the mother, who refuses to see anything wrong with her family, wants things to be perfect for the father’s return that day from the hospital in what she has characterized as a slight problem.

When he arrives, the brothers are astounded to see him in a wheelchair, felled by a stroke and barely able to speak. The mother says she didn’t want to upset them by letting on, which naturally upsets them even more, not least because she is clearly refusing to recognize the seriousness of her husband’s condition. As the father’s mind seems to have stopped at some point in the past, the brothers are forced humiliatingly to humor him by pretending that they have achieved their dreams: one brother goes on about his latest cricket match, the other sings Gilbert and Sullivan. As that sputters out, the mother insists they be cheerful and play a game, but things quickly deteriorate into damaging accusations and unhappy revelations (the lawyer loves his brother’s wife, with whom he talks for hours each day; the self-loathing younger brother’s failures are due to his own timidity in facing challenges; the father slept around big-time; etc). Finally, emotions hit the breaking point and spiral into an out-of-control food fight. No relationship is left unturned at the end.

A funny touch in all this is a scoreboard hung on either side of the stage delineating rules for each character: the lawyer must sit when telling a lie, the mother must clean when upset, the younger brother must make a funny voice when expressing frustration, the actress must stand and tell a joke when embarrassed, and the wife (who’s trying to lay off the sauce) must drink when contradicting someone. So when the lawyer is asked how the wife’s cooking is, for instance, he sits down before answering that it’s delicious. When the mother realizes things aren’t going her way, she deals with it by wiping the counters and stacking the plates and rearranging articles like mad. Additional rules and counter-rules are added, showing the little rules we adopt in order to cope, and watching the characters conform to these traits is hilarious. A neat staging device.

The chaos at the end, as funny as it is, is way overdone, and the wrap-up seems too pat. Also, the role of the actress is irritating at times, her feigned jokiness going beyond the plausible; I wish more thought had gone into this character in particular. Still, the other roles are well drawn and the plot tightly constructed, making for a consistently entertaining show. I wasn’t familiar with the writer, Sam Holcroft, but will keep an eye on her.

The staging was done, excellently, in the round by Marianne Elliot (the Curious director), with exits and entrances from all sides. The mother’s home formed the single set, with a dining area bookended by a fully equipped kitchen and living room. There were plenty of small props, which gives them lots to throw around in the frenetic food fight scene. The acting was superb all around. The cynicism of the younger brother (Stephen Mangan) was especially well acted, and the elder brother (Miles Jupp) made a worthy foil.

Productions of King John are pretty rare among Shakespeare’s plays, so I jumped at the chance to catch a special performance in the fantastic candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Theatre (it’s playing otherwise on the main stage). I assumed they chose this show because of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta this year – in two days, actually; I saw a thrilling exhibition about the document at the British Library the next day, including two original copies. As it happens, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have mentioned the document at all in the play, but I noticed that they tacked on a line about it anyway, which is supposedly common in the centuries since. Nevertheless, King John is in the news these days, so I was interested to see what the playwright did with him. The king is generally perceived as a tyrant brought low, so I assumed it would be a Richard III treatment.

It wasn’t quite like that. The show is rather ambiguous, and I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to like John or not. With the death of Richard I (the Lionheart), John takes power, but the French are pressuring him to give way to his nephew Arthur as the true heir to the throne. John discovers that a boy in an inheritance dispute is the illegitimate son of Richard and persuades him to give up his inheritance in exchange for a knighthood (basically revealing to the world, to his mother’s considerable embarrassment, that he is a bastard). The French declare war, and both sides arrive at an English-controlled town in France.

Unexpectedly, the citizens refuse to open their gates until the parties decide between themselves who is king. When Richard suggests an alliance that will sack the town together, the frightened citizens propose a marriage of convenience between the sides. The French initially agree, betraying Arthur, but change their minds again when a papal delegate arrives and excommunicates John.

To counter, John captures Arthur and orders his aide Hubert to kill him. Hubert is unable to go through with it, leaving the boy captive but alive. John has in the meantime been persuaded to release Arthur in order to avoid war, but the unknowing Hubert arrives and tells him falsely that he has carried out his duty and that Arthur is dead. The barons accuse John of acting in bad faith and desert him. Hubert then confesses to John that he did not kill Arthur after all, and the relieved king says to get the message quickly to the barons.

Unfortunately Arthur is in fact dead, having cracked his head open while trying to escape over a high wall. The barons are furious. John agrees to come under the control of the Pope if the papal delegate can work out a compromise, but this is unsuccessful. In the end, the barons realize that the French are duplicitous and decide to come back to John. They discover to their horror that John has been poisoned by a monk. Still, having lost the barons’ support, the French agree to a treaty, and John’s son Henry becomes King Henry III. Richard the Bastard notes that internal fighting can be as big a threat to the nation as foreign invasion.

Whew. For all the twists and turns, though, the plot was actually fairly straightforward, giving clear motivation to all sides for their actions. There was an unusually large number of key characters, including some strikingly bold female roles (the respective mothers of John, Arthur and Richard the Bastard), but the sharp writing distinguished them beautifully. John himself emerged as sympathetic and evil in equal degree. He could be vacillating, vulnerable to harder souls like his mother, and lacked a strong moral core. His decisions both to kill Arthur and not to kill him were based on political considerations with no big thought as to the boy himself. Hard to know what to make of him, but it’s true that he is not as compelling as some of Shakespeare’s more driven heroes/villains because of this weakness. Still, the show offered plenty of drama and suspense, and I honestly don’t know why it isn’t done more often other than the lack of an easy moral.

James Dacre’s production was traditional in style and made superb work of the space, with entrances, exits and line deliveries from various points of the theater. Jo Stone-Fewings was perfect as the lead, and Barbara Marten as his mother was also memorable in an overall strong cast. I could understand every word of the script, which deserves applause on its own. One curious moment was when Arthur’s mother, played by a black actress, calls another black actor a slave. Wasn’t sure what that implied, if anything.

It would be interesting to see this play on the larger stage, which might show the big cast to better advantage. But the atmosphere from the flickering candlelight just can’t be replicated outdoors. A great production in a wonderful space.

 

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