Saturday, July 22, 2017

TWILIGHT SONG at Park Theatre - Echoes of a Summer's night...

After the recent reading of Martin Sherman's BENT at the Lyttelton, there was a Q&A with Sherman and director Stephen Daldry and a member of the audience asked them if any gay play in the 38 years since BENT's first production had made a big impression on them. I was surprised that they both shined the question on; Daldry took the opportunity to promote a new two-part play that he is directing next year at the Young Vic and Sherman said there were too many.

I had hoped that Kevin Elyot's sublime MY NIGHT WITH REG would be mentioned, particularly as Elyot, when an actor, had appeared in Martin Sherman's play about Isadora Duncan WHEN SHE DANCED at the Globe Theatre, while Daldry was Artistic Director at the Royal Court when the play was produced.  In passing, not to mention ANGELS IN AMERICA was surprising too as they were sitting on the set for it's current revival!

MY NIGHT WITH REG was revived in a wonderful production three years ago at the Donmar but tragically Kevin Elyot died two months before it's opening and now his final play TWILIGHT SONG is being presented at north London's Park Theatre.  As in his plays REG, THE DAY I STOOD STILL and MOUTH TO MOUTH, Elyot again plays with the concept of time, moving forward and back over months and years to disclose the quiet desperation and gnawing secrets that his mostly-reserved characters are trying to live with.

TWILIGHT SONG takes place in prime Elyot territory: a ground floor living room in a large North London house which belongs to Barry Gough and his mother Isabella who seem locked in a strange, resentful existence.  In his 50s, Barry has taken early retirement to mooch about the house that is sinking into disrepair.  He has invited estate agent Skinner to look around it as he is thinking of downsizing.  After revealing that Skinner grew up in Australia with his father who moved there from England the conversation takes an unexpected turn that, although married, he occasionally fucks for money, men or women.  Barry hesitatingly asks if he would do it to him and after some brutal negotiating Skinner agrees...

The action then moves back to the same room in the summer of 1960, where Isabella and her husband Basil are entertaining two older friends, Uncle Charles and his army friend Harry before going out to La Caprice while outside the garden is being laid.  While alone Charles attempts to kiss Harry who brusquely rebuffs him. Charles is unhappy that they no longer have a secretive sex life but Harry refuses to acknowledge it, he is a father now and a successful solicitor.

Seven years later, a pregnant Isabella and Basil are again going out to dinner with Charles but much has changed; Isabella is bored with Basil and confesses to Charles that the father of her unborn child is a working-class man she once had an affair with while Charles reveals his secret sorrow that he refused to financially help Harry who turned to him for help because he was being blackmailed by a younger man.  Faced with personal disgrace Harry killed himself...

We ricochet back to the night of Barry's meeting with Skinner when an aged and drunken Isabella returns from her weekly visit to a spiritualist.  She is desperately trying to find out what happened to her younger son, the one she was pregnant with by the secret lover, who vanished while still a toddler from the house. Although bickering, it is obvious that Barry still yearns for the maternal love that was lavished on his missing brother.

One last time Elyot takes us back in time, to the same night when Basil, Isabella, Charles and Harry were off to La Caprice... the gardener working outside walks in and catches Isabella alone and their conversation turns to flirtation - just like the scene between Barry and Skinner - and he roughly kisses her.  They are interrupted by Harry and it transpires that the gardener knows Harry as well, he is the blackmailer...

Director Anthony Banks certainly keeps the 75 minute production running along nicely, maintaining the thread of inner sorrow that runs through the characters' lives taut while James Cotterill's simple stage design was effective.  Sadly the play itself seemed to be just off the beat; Elyot was obviously struggling with it's plotting and both the obvious and hidden connections seem finally to be too forced, there were so many crossed lines going on between the relatively few main characters that I missed the one Owen spotted - that Skinner is probably Barry's lost brother.  I am sure Elyot could have given it a re-write had there been time allowed him.

There were particularly fine performances from Hugh Ross as Uncle Charles, saddled with his secret sorrow, and Adam Garcia was great fun as the ever-surprising Skinner but as the catalyst character of the gardener he revealed the fact that Elyot has him there just to link the secrets, there is no real humanity there.  Paul Higgins was effective as the emotionally-stunted Barry but again he revealed the character of Basil to be merely a cypher.  Sadly Bryony Hannah was one-note as Isabella and was totally at sea when she had to age up to being 75 years-old.

There was enough within TWILIGHT SONG to maintain interest and a minor Kevin Elyot play is still worth one's time but what I was ultimately left with is the sadness that there will be no more plays from him now...

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

TURANDOT at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - I didn't sleep!

Back to the Opera House, Covent Garden... but not for ballet!  Only three months after seeing Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY on that marvellous stage, we were back to see the maestro's final opera TURANDOT,  yes... the one with *that* aria.

As soon as Giacomo Puccini committed to writing the opera in early 1920, he raced ahead of his librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni and by December, when they delivered their first draft, the composer was drumming his fingers, eager to fit the music he had written into the plot line.  But the opera's birth was a protracted affair, with characters being re-written and the plot streamlined but in 1924 the opera looked completed.

However the ending of the story proved problematic and Puccini remained unhappy with the plot and his contribution to it, but his own final act was fast approaching; he was diagnosed in October with throat cancer and, unaware of the full extent of his illness, he died in pain one month later.  With TURANDOT still not completed, the task was given to composer Franco Alfano but the first attempt was rejected as too wide of what Puccini would have wanted and a shorter version was finally accepted.

However at the very first production at La Scala in 1926, the composer Toscanini stopped after the onstage death of the character Liu and addressed the audience that this was the last music composed by Puccini as the curtain fell.  However the subsequent performances included the Alfano ending and that is how the opera is performed.

TURANDOT made it's London debut the following year at Covent Garden and has played regularly ever since; the current production was first seen in Los Angeles in 1984 when the Royal Opera appeared at the Cultural Olympiad and we saw the 277th production of it!  Again I think it's remarkable - and somewhat alarming - how long productions stay in both the opera and ballet repertoires at Covent Garden.  I guess it shows how much new productions cost to stage...

That said, Andrei Serban's production (revived here by Andrew Sinclair) is wonderfully vivid and moves like a train through the simple plot: Calaf, the disguised Prince of Tartary is reunited with his deposed father King Timur who has only his slave girl Liu to look after him, needless to say Liu has always loved the Prince from afar.  They are reunited in Peking which is ruled by the beautiful Princess Turandot who has set a heavy price on any man who would marry her.

Like the Sphynx, the icy Turandot asks the men three impenetrable riddles and are summarily executed in public should they get the questions wrong; the Princess has sworn she will revenge the rape and murder of an earlier Princess in her dynasty on all men who would dare ask her to marry.  Needless to say Calaf falls immediately in love with Turandot and accepts the riddle challenge.  Amazingly he answers the riddles correctly and amid the crowd's jubilation, notices that Turandot remains unmoved.  He offers her a deal: if she can discover his real identity by dawn he will allow himself to be executed...

The story's bloodthirsty theme is playfully evoked by the set being littered and over-hung with large wooden heads showing all the men executed for failing the challenge, the bloody gore represented by long, trailing red ribbons.  The design by Sally Jacobs was a marvellous mix of the simple and the extravagant: the set was a curved two-storey wall which allowed the chorus to stand and watch the plot unravel, with occasional huge set-pieces like a dragon-festooned knife-grinder for the Executioner to ride around on, a pagoda for Calaf to rest during the long night before his possible-execution and a golden throne for the Emperor of Peking to descend from the heavens.

The Opera House orchestra sounded wonderful, making Puccini's ravishing music sweep you along in it's wake, the climax being - as it should be - the third act opener 'Nessun Dorma'.  It was marvellous to hear it in it's proper setting, presaged by a darkened stage being illuminated from behind the wall by light from the palace and large lanterns bobbing around Calaf's pagoda.  I didn't think I would be moved by the aria but I was, understanding it's place in the story-telling made it all the more special and it was excellently sung by Roberto Alagna as Calaf.  The odd thing being that it is so much a part of the story-telling that Calaf is interrupted as soon as he finishes belting out his final 'Vinceró'by three other characters... the urge to clap had to wait until the finale when the Nessun Dorma theme is reprised.

Lise Lindstrom was in imperious form as the icy Turandot but the biggest cheers were reserved for Aleksandra Kurzak as the tragic Liu, her two arias were beautifully sung and she gave her character a real personality which cannot be said for the others thanks to the basic shallowness of the libretto.  I also liked the trio of ministers Ping Pang and Pong who were well sung by Leon Kosavic, Samuel Sakker and David Junghoon Kim.

it's an odd opera, the rushed happy ending (for everyone but Liu and Timur) is not quite believable but Puccini's majestic and thrilling Chinese-influenced score is marvellous and the story, while thin, powers along.  Added to this, a production that is witty and spectacular and you have a real treat.  Now... let's find another Puccini...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

BENT Rehearsed Reading at the Lyttelton Theatre: The Power of Words...

With it's combination of Pride and celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the England and Wales, last weekend was probably the best time to revisit the thought-provoking and understated horror of Martin Sherman's BENT, staged as a rehearsed reading as part of the National Theatre's celebration of Queer Theatre.

How, I had wondered, would the play fare as a reading; it's a play that thrives on images as well as words, images that linger long in the mind.  But I had reckoned without Stephen Daldrey's insightful and nuanced handling of the text and the exemplary performances of his cast.  In the Q&A afterward he revealed that he had about seven hours in total to rehearse the reading which elicited a gasp of surprise from the audience as it was a seamless performance.

On 14th August 1979, a group of us who worked at Claude Gill Books in Piccadilly went for a night out at the Criterion, our neighbouring theatre.  I am not sure if we knew what the play was about but we emerged poleaxed.  We made for Henekey's pub next door and I remember not only being unable to speak about what I had just seen but being vaguely angry that my straight colleagues were even trying to discuss it.  I wasn't out (but felt I didn't need to be) and it was possibly the first time I had experienced seeing gay men represented as anything other than camp caricatures; this was my first exposure to BENT, seen in it's original production directed by Robert Chetwyn and starring Ian McKellen and Tom Bell.

That production haunted me, in particular the wonderful understated performance of Tom Bell as Horst, contrasting against the usual overly-showy McKellen.  I saw it again in 1990 in Sean Mathias' less-memorable production which again starred Serena opposite the milquetoast Michael Cashman.  Cashman chaired the Q&A afterward and was very eloquent about how that production not only came to be staged initially as a fundraiser to set up the charity Stonewall to fight Section 28 but also how Richard Eyre invited the production to be staged at the National Theatre.

Again talk of that initial fundraiser at the Adelphi in 1989 made me mentally beat myself up about not seeing it as it meant I missed Ian Charleson's performance of club-ower Greta, less than 6 months later he had died.  Cashman spoke fondly about Ian and it always makes me smile when I hear my favourite actor remembered with love.  Mathias' production also led to his 1997 film which is a fairly inert experience.  But that was then and this is now... 

Russell Tovey was excellent as Max, the black sheep of a wealthy family who has found Wiemar Berlin to be his playground: making black-market deals, living on his wits, selling drugs and finding plenty of men to play with despite his relationship with dancer Rudy (sweetly petulant George MacKay).  The play starts out as a comedy with Rudy tartly telling a hungover Max about what he got up to during his drunken binge but the tone darkens when the SS arrive to arrest Max's pickup Wolf who is a member of Ernst Rohm's SA, it's the morning after "The Night of the Long Knives" when Hitler had Rohm's Brownshirts organization liquidized by the SS.  Wolf is murdered and the lovers are on the run.

They turn to Greta, the self-serving owner of the gay club but Greta, although gay, has a wife and children to hide behind, and he even reveals he betrayed them to the SS to deflect attention from his club.  Giles Terera seized all the opportunities the role offers and sang Greta's haunting song "Streets of Berlin" very well, indeed it seemed to linger in the air throughout the play.  Max and Rudy's hopes of escaping to Amsterdam are dashed when Max's closeted Uncle Freddie can only supply a single ticket which Max refuses; in this one small scene, Simon Russell Beale was delicious.

Max and Rudy are finally arrested and deported to Dachau as "Anti-social" members of society.  On the train Rudy is singled out for brutality by an officer (all the SS officers were played with understated terror by Pip Torrens) and Max is made to help beat him to death to prove he means nothing to him.  Max later reveals that he was also forced to have sex with a dead Jewish girl to prove he is not gay and once at the camp wears a yellow star to prove he is a Jew which actually wins him more concessions once in the camp.

There he meets gay political activist Horst (a powerful Paapa Essiedu) who witnessed what happened on the train and who wears a pink triangle and is disgusted that Max is denying his reality.  Max gets Horst onto his mind-numbing but relatively safe work detail of moving rocks from one pile to another next to the camp's electric fence.  Slowly the men prove that love can flourish in the stoniest of ground and Horst even verbally makes love to Max during one of their enforced rest periods standing a few feet apart.  But eventually - and in the worst circumstance - Max must admit to the world and himself that he is a homosexual...

As I said the play for me had lived in memory through it's visuals - Greta's drag act, the shadowy train, the bare stage with it's electrified fence (and constant low-level humming), two piles of rocks and a death-pit as well as the visual shock of Wolf's onstage nudity - but here, with just Sherman's text to concentrate on, it proved riveting and possibly will be the version of the play I most remember.

Martin Sherman spoke about it's history: written for Gay Sweatshop, the artistic director deliberately passed on it so it could be seen by a bigger audience but it was initially rejected by the Royal Court and Hampstead would only stage it with a gay director - none of whom took up the challenge.  Finally picked up by director Robert Chetwyn and with the star names of Ian McKellen and Tom Bell attached, it was finally staged at the Royal Court to huge popular appeal - but still with Court management disapproval and fairly hostile press reviews.  No leading West End producers would touch it until the independant producer Eddie Kulukundis brought it in to the Criterion (which is where I came in!) but only on the proviso from the Society of West End Theatre that it would be gone by December as it would be distasteful to be seen at Christmas time in the West End.  Fairly shameful eh?  Stephen Daldry also commented on the impact the production made on him as a young theatregoer. 

As was also touched on in the after-show discussion, BENT's power to shock and move is ever-timely and there was a hint that there might be a new revival next year.  I am so glad I had the opportunity to see this...

Sunday, July 09, 2017

LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL at the Wyndhams - closing time...

Some things should never be passed up.  In May 2016, Audra McDonald was due to make her West End acting debut in Lanie Robertson's LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL as Billie Holiday, a role for which she had won not only her 6th Tony Award (making her the most awarded performer for performances, not just honorary awards) but also the first to win in each of the four acting categories.  However that engagement was cancelled as McDonald announced she was pregnant but a year later and she is finally at the Wyndhams so one simply had to go.

I am sure in the late 1950s there was a similar feeling if Billie Holiday was playing dates but probably for the wrong reasons.  Her frequent and very public arrests over her use of narcotics had made her more and more of a liability and in 1947 her card allowing her to play NY clubs was revoked meaning a dramatic loss of income as that was where she could rely on big crowds.

She still performed - even in Europe - but her health deteriorated from her drink and drug addictions and one cannot help but guess that one of the thrills in seeing her onstage was the perverse one of whether she would make it - as was the case with Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse.

Robertson's play imagines a playdate for Billie Holiday in the real Philadelphia club Emerson's Bar & Grill four months before her death from Cirrhosis and heart failure in a New York hospital.  Christopher Oram's atmospheric set spills off the stage into the auditorium, with cabaret tables both onstage and in the first seven rows of the stalls - imagine our delight when an usher asked if we would like to move to one of these tables rather than sit in the back-row of the stalls - a difference in seat price of £60!

McDonald ambles onto the stage and it is fairly obvious that she is already 'feeling no pain' however she starts to sing... and that's when the magic happens.  Yes, Audra McDonald is doing a carefully-worked on impression rather than an interpretation of Holiday's unique phrasing but wow, what an impression!  She is truly remarkable especially when one is aware that her own natural range is a high soprano.  She has Holiday's trademark way of curling her voice around a lyric, honeyed yet spiked like a dangerously tampered-with cocktail.  But what McDonald captures too is the heaviness in Billie's voice by 1959... a voice worn out by life.

But this is a play-with-music rather than a musical, and while McDonald's singing is extraordinary enough she also delivers an acting performance of blistering intensity.  Holiday is not-so-quietly seething that the NY club ban has resulted in her having to play Philadelphia, although it was where she was born she hates it for the unrelenting pressure on her from the city's police.

The gig spirals out of control as Billie ignores the pleas of her pianist Jimmy and starts knocking back drink after drink.  She forgets lyrics, accuses the band of not understanding she can only sing songs she feels and after a few more songs, stumbles from the stage.  After an extended break she wanders back on cuddling her chihuahua (instant bedlam from the audience) and all seems to have calmed down until one notices her drooping left sleeve showing bleeding needle tracks.

Lanie Robertson's play certainly doesn't try to glamorize his subject - and McDonald certainly doesn't try to soft-peddle her for audience sympathy - but that eventually is the play's major fault.  I doubt if Holiday at even her most strung-out would have taken her audience on a whistle-stop tour of the tragedies in her life.

Yes of course not everyone is the audience will be aware of Holiday's wretched background, confrontations with racism and terrible men but eventually I felt like Thelma Ritter in ALL ABOUT EVE who says, when forced to hear the seemingly tragic life of Eve Harrington, "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end"; the misery is piled on so thick it leaves no air to breath.

But under Lonny Price's sensitive direction McDonald triumphs as Billie the singer and Billie the woman, and the songs sound marvellous thanks to pianist Shelton Becton, drummer Frankie Tontoh and bassist Neville Malcolm.

There is a remarkable moment halfway through the show which illustrates McDonald's ability to change moods on a dime: her Billie takes great delight in telling of her immediate revenge on a racist uppity-white-bitch maitre d' who refuses to let her use a restaurant toilet and then launches straight into an intense version of "Strange Fruit" Holiday's self-penned classic indictment of Southern lynchings.  So while Robertson's play sometimes feels overladen with misery, Audra McDonald elevates it to an evening of power and wonder.

Monday, June 26, 2017


Yes I know... more dance!  But this was an evening I would not have missed for anything.  As the Royal Ballet came to the end of their 2016-17 season it was time to salute again the peerless legacy of the company's founding choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and to say goodbye to a principal ballerina.

As well as the evening serving as a double tribute, it was also an evening that featured two adaptations from literature as well as featuring two ballets that were originally danced by Ashton's muse, Dame Margot Fonteyn.  The Royal Ballet's triple bills usually deliver the goods - this one ranks as one of the best.

The first of the evening's ballets was THE DREAM, Ashton's 1964 version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.  Rather than do a full adaptation of Shakespeare's play, Sir Fred chose to focus on the main middle section where the arguing rulers of fairyland, Oberon and Titania, find their dispute disrupted by the fleeing human lovers Helena, Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander as well as the clod-hopping Bottom.  I think he might have spoiled Shakespeare's play for me now as, without the distractions of the bookending Athens sequences, his version was by far the most entertaining I have seen in years!

Ashton set his choreography to Mendelssohn's scores for two productions of the original play in the late 19th Century but John Lanchbery's arrangement of the scores is so smooth that it plays as a single piece.  The late David Walker's design takes us back to full-on romantic versions of the play and I particularly liked the fairy frocks which were in varying shades of green, blue, pink and purple.

The always-remarkable Steven McRae was a fantastic Oberon, charismatic, mercurial and defying gravity, and was well partnered by Akane Takada as a spirited Titania, their final duet was simply dazzling as the couple become once more the loving king and queen of the forest.  The role of Puck was played by Valentino Zucchetti who could give vivacity a bad name.

Bennet Gartside was a delight as Bottom, galumphing away when not delighting in his temporary status as Titania's donkey-headed lover.  The mixed-up lovers danced by Thomas Mock, Matthew Ball, Claire Calvert and, in particular, Itziar Mendizabal as the lovelorn Helena were a delight.  It must be a tough call to get laughs through just dance when you know it's a famous comedic role but Itziar got them.  All in all, as I said, it was one of the most captivating DREAMs that I have seen.

In 1946 the Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to be the permanent company at the Opera House, Covent Garden and one of their first productions was SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS, danced to music by César Franck.  During WWII ballet had relied on safe, narrative productions but Ashton wanted this to be totally abstract.  It was an immediate success and the original cast included Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer and Michael Somes.  Three male and three female dancers are alone on stage with nothing to distract from their simple lines and classic moves.  It is hard to judge it's originality now as it is the abstract norm but it was still beautifully danced by all the ensemble and the leads, Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov.

Just as the lights were lowering for the last ballet I whispered to Owen that Zenaida Yanowsky - who we were about to see in MARGUERITE AND ARMAND - couldn't have too many performances left as her retirement from the Royal Ballet had been announced months ago.  I was right, she didn't.  It was that night!

We had just seen Zenaida in full imperious diva mode in Liam Scarlett's SYMPHONIC DANCES but as Dumas' tragic Lady of The Camilias she was all too human but still never less than hypnotic.  There was a slight sense of deja vu as we had seen the same story at Covent Garden last year in LA TRAVIATA but Ashton's MARGUERITE AND ARMAND - like his DREAM - distilled the essence of the story without making you feel much was left out.

Ashton devised the ballet in 1963 as a star vehicle for his partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and they created such an indelible stamp on it that the Royal Ballet felt they could not revive it until 2000, well after their deaths in the 1990s.  But the piece cries out for charismatic star performers and while Yanowsky certainly is, it's a shame that Roberto Bolle was a bit stolid.

Danced to a piano sonata by Liszt the ballet starts with Marguerite on her deathbed, deserted by the hangers-on who once thronged her home and she drifts back to the love of her life Armand.  We flash back to the night they met, when Marguerite was the courtesan of the Parisian rich and famous.  Their initial flirtation hints at a deeper longing and they quickly become inseparable despite Marguerite's failing health.

They move to the country for Marguerite's health but her past catches up with her when Armand's disapproving father arrives and pressures Marguerite to reject Armand so he can have a blameless future.  Despite her love for him, Marguerite flees their home while Armand sleeps.  Well partnered by Christopher Saunders as Armand's father, Yanowsky played the scene beautifully, her final moments with Armand were achingly poignant - who needs words?

Marguerite returns to Paris and to her old rich lover but Armand appears at one of her parties and denounces her as a whore, showering her with money as payment for their love.  Again Yanowsky played the scene wonderfully - and I say played rather than danced as she gave as great an acting performance as any RADA-trained thesp.  Publicly humiliated, Marguerite's rich friends desert her and she succumbs to her illness alone.  However Armand's father tells his son the real reason for her desertion and he rushes to her bedside to have final moments with her before she dies.  This could feel mawkish but - just like Garbo in the 1936 film of CAMILLE - Yanowsky played the truth and not the sentimentality

If I thought the emotional highpoint had just taken place onstage I was wrong, as the curtain slowly descended there was a thunderous ovation which only grew and grew as Zenaida and the company took their bows.  Wave after wave of flowers rained down from the stage boxes to say farewell and thank you to her from her London fans; her last-ever Royal Ballet performance will be during the company's forthcoming tour of Australia.  It was like being in a Hollywood film!

Then came the real surprise,a parade of her leading men including Carlos Acosta and Steven McRae lined up to present her with a rose each then the choreographers who had worked with her ending with Sir Anthony Dowell almost hidden behind a huge bouquet.  Then it was the turn of Kevin O'Hare as Director of the Royal Ballet to give a speech thanking her for 23 years of artistry with the company and hinting that he would be trying in the future to hopefully pursuade her to return as a guest artist.  Then it was time for more curtain calls - and still more showers of flowers - before Zenaida left the stage for the last time.

It was a wonderful night showcasing the taste, mastery and effortless storytelling of Sir Fred but also it was an honour to be in the night when the Royal Ballet said a fond goodbye to one of their own.

Brava Zenaida!

Monday, June 12, 2017

DESH at Sadler's Wells - a Khan do attitude...

What!  Yet another dance production...!

Choreographer and dancer Akram Khan is now one of the UK's leading dance stars but we had never seen him onstage until last week when he saw his semi-autobiographical solo piece DESH at Sadler's Wells - and believe me he deshed about all over the place...

I can appreciate Khan's quality as a performer and it's a rare dancer who can perform a one-man show for 80 minutes, but by the end of the piece I was feeling claustrophobic by his taut, contained dance vocabulary.

DESH is based on Khan's memories of the stories of his Bangladeshi father.  The more Khan delved into the stories, the more a scenario grew in his mind...  he imagines a man whose father dies and the son travels back to his father's homeland and his culture shock of assumption meeting reality.

The exploration soon spirals off into imaginary spaces and here Khan is helped immeasurably by set designer Tim Yip and lighting designer Michael Hulls who conjure up imaginary worlds for him to dance through.

Indeed it's the visuals that have stayed with me... Khan exploring a jungle setting while telling a story to his niece where he climbed trees, met an elephant, snakes and a crocodile but the fairy tale ends with a sting in it's tale as he is confronted by an armoured tank in the jungle too, Kahn painting the father's face on his bald head and making this character dance, and the central image of him futilely trying to crack open a large slab of concrete. 

The evening climaxed with an atmospheric rainstorm conjured up by a silk curtain and strips of black material which rose to reveal row after row of white strips, eventually Khan ended up suspended among them.

I enjoyed the bravura visual theatricality, I just wish I had not found Khan's choreography to be so hemmed-in and internal.  I would definitely see another production of his however, especially if it involved more than one dancer!

Friday, June 02, 2017


It is here.

The sky darkened, a loud crashing was heard and there it is, flapping it's mighty wings and pointing the way to the future.... yes, the National Theatre's much-awaited revival of Tony Kushner's mighty two-part play ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES has landed at the Lyttelton Theatre.  Could it live up to all the hype generated?

Hell yes.

ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES - the first part of Tony Kushner's reaction to both the onset of the AIDS pandemic as well as President Reagan's refusal to even acknowledge the crisis for four years after it's first appearance - was first seen in a 1990 workshop in Los Angeles and had it's world premiere the following year in San Francisco. At the same time, a copy of the text found it's way to Richard Eyre, then Artistic Director of the National Theatre, who rushed it to director Declan Donnellan.

It opened at the Cottesloe in 1992 and I was dazzled by the sweep of Kushner's imagination and innate grasp of what makes theatre magic: characters who slowly draw you into their lives, great dialogue and stage imagery that haunts you.  It later won the Critic's Circle and Olivier Awards for Best New Play.  In 1993, Donnellan directed PERESTROIKA, again at the Cottesloe, in repertory with MILLENNIUM.  It was sold out for it's entire run and I never got to experience the second play onstage.

Ten years later both plays were filmed for HBO by Mike Nichols with a starry cast of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker, and while enjoying it as well as finally seeing PERESTROIKA, I felt it was something that needed to be experienced in a theatre again - I still have an unwatched dvd!  So when it was announced that Marianne Elliott was to direct a National Theatre revival with the starry line-up of Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey and Denise Gough, I knew that tickets HAD to be bought.

The National went into a HAMILTON-style booking period, no doubt wishing to control any third-party re-selling, and coming up with five monthly ticket ballots to those unable to get them through the mailing list and general on-sale.  But that is all in the past now... the plays are on and again one reels from the National at the end of both plays - or both on the same day for real die-hards - with one's theatrical blood racing at the breadth of both Kushner's vision and Elliott's productions.

MILLENNIUM APPROACHES is the better-constructed of the plays; Kushner introduces his seven main characters and then sets them spinning away from their carefully-constructed lives as they confront both the AIDS virus and their place in 1980's America.  Interestingly both plays start with monologues from minor characters which, in retrospect, set the agenda for each play: in PERESTROIKA the oldest Bolshevik alive harangues his comrades for straying from the path of Communist Theory, while in MILLENNIUM APPROACHES an elderly rabbi prepares to bury a Jewish woman who journeyed from a shtetl to Brooklyn.  Spoilers ahead...

Prior and Louis are lovers in New York where Louis is an over-intellectualizing clerk in a law firm.  Sitting together after Louis' grandmother's funeral, Prior tells Louis he has just been diagnosed with the HIV virus.  Louis attempts to be supportive as his lover's symptoms worsen but eventually he walks out, leaving Prior devastated and increasingly paranoid from hearing a disembodied voice warning him he will be visited soon.  Prior's only support comes from his oldest friend Belize, a black nurse in an AIDS unit who also has a jaundiced eye and withering put-downs.

Pious Mormon Joe is a lawyer in the same legal office as Louis but is being fast-tracked for advancement to the State Department in Washington DC by New York's most-feared lawyer Roy Cohn, secure of his place in history through his involvement with the anti-communist trials in the 1950s.  Joe however cannot obey his father-figure as his wife Harper is wrestling with irrational fears and Valium abuse that have led to agoraphobia and delusions.

Harper however realizes that it is the creeping knowledge that Joe is actually homosexual that has driven her to despair and when she finally confronts him, he admits that he is struggling with his sexuality.  Meanwhile Roy Cohn is told by his doctor that he has been diagnosed with HIV which sends Roy into a vicious rage, threatening the doctor with legal action if he says it is anything but liver cancer.

Co-workers Louis and Joe realize they are attracted to each other, leading the conflicted Joe to call his mother Hannah in Salt Lake City and tell her he is gay which makes her so angry she quickly sells her home to finance her to fly to New York to get Joe and Harper reunited...  but Harper is lost in a delusional state, wandering the streets of Brooklyn thinking she is in Antarctica.

Roy Cohn's health takes a turn for the worse and he is admitted to hospital where Belize is his night nurse and proves to be the one person unafraid of him.  Roy is also haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the 1950s woman accused of spying who Cohn made sure was found guilty and executed.  The devastating climax occurs when Prior's paranoia is made flesh when an Angel crashes into his apartment and tells him to prepare as "The Great Work begins".

By the end of MILLENNIUM I was almost breathless with the pure theatrical magic conjured by Marianne Elliott's sweeping production and the bravura performances; the appearance of the bedraggled Angel - looking more like a scrutty pigeon than an ambassador of God - is such a coup de theatre that you leave the theatre buzzing with excitement and aching for the second part... we had a whole fortnight to wait!

PERESTROIKA does not have the narrative drive of MILLENNIUM and sometimes I was aware that it was treading water and crying out for an editor but as soon as those thoughts settle Kushner pulls you back into the lives of his characters and you are hooked again. 

Harper is rescued by mother-in-law Hannah from her delusional wanderings and camps out at the Mormon Visitor Centre where Hannah is volunteering, Joe and Louis are in a tentative relationship, Roy Cohn is growing sicker despite having a private stash of the wonder-drug AZT which disgusts Belize who knows of patients who have been deprived of it by Cohn's heavy-handed string-pulling, and Prior is a changed man after his visit from The Angel.

Prior recounts to the incredulous Belize what happened; The Angel told Joe that God has turned his back on both Heaven and the world as mankind has kept evolving, exploring and moving ever-forward and refusing to stay fixed and afraid.  God's actions have left the Angels as mere lookers-on but they have selected Prior to be a Prophet to deliver the message to mankind to stop moving and then maybe God will return.

Prior stalks the streets of New York dressed in black struggling with his Prophet status and finds a kindred lost soul in Harper when he visits the Mormon centre.  Prior has neglected his health and collapses, establishing an unexpected friendship with Hannah who advises him that one should fight against Angels' bad advice as well as welcome their good advice.

Belize delights in telling Louis that his new boyfriend's father-figure is the hated Roy Cohn, the lovers fight and Joe leaves after physically attacking Louis.  Joe visits Roy in hospital and attempts to explain why he has left his wife only for his mentor to hypocritically abuse him for being gay, finally waking Joe up to Roy's callousness.  After learning that the Law Society have finally disbarred him for his many years of corruption, Roy dies alone. Belize summons Louis to the deathbed as he is the only Jew he knows and makes him say the Kaddish over the body, movingly prompted in his ignorance of the words by the ghost of Ethel.

The Angel appears to a recovered Prior and Hannah in his hospital room and he wrestles it into submission, The Angel finally relents and lets Prior ascend the neon ladder to Heaven which looks like a run-down operations room, staffed by the other ineffectual Angels.  Prior relinquishes his Prophet status, acknowledging the implications of becoming a mere mortal again but telling them that mankind must be allowed to keep moving ahead and discovering new possibilities.

Joe attempts a reconciliation with Harper but she refuses, she is leaving NY to discover a new life in San Francisco, alone.  Louis and Belize are by Prior's bedside when he wakes from his dream of Heaven - Kushner slyly gives Prior Dorothy's dialogue from the epilogue of THE WIZARD OF OZ - and reveal that they have Cohn's secret supply of AZT to aid Prior's health.  Four years later Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah visit the Angel of Bethesda fountain in Central Park and Prior addresses the audience, telling of his belief in the angels who walk among the living every day and that we must prepare for the future...The Great Work continues.

The two play's combined length of 7 hours 30 minutes slide past unnoticed and this is primarily down to Marianne Elliott's astounding direction - at all times you are engrossed in her sleek, filmic production and although there are the occasional longueurs (in PERESTROIKA in particular) you never lose your fascination with the main characters and the world they inhabit.  Elliott's ability to move from the Manhattan scenes to the fantasy worlds just within an arm's length of the characters is consistent throughout and never feels jarring or contrived, it's a very humane vision of the play's plains of existence.

Ian MacNeil's huge set might be a bit tricksy at times with it's neon-edged little boxes that turn and re-form themselves for interiors but again the scope of imagination is to be applauded.  Paule Constable's wonderful lighting designs effortlessly convey Kushner's worlds within and without with elegance and style.  A word too for the excellent sound design of Ian Dickinson.

Elliott has also an astonishing cast to bring her production to expansive life, a real ensemble but all delivering on-the-money performances; Nathan Lane is the glittering dark malevolent heart of the production as the venal Roy Cohn and as with all well-written villains, you cannot help but be drawn to his unforgiving personality.  He perfectly captures the larger-than-life personality that would be the magnet for the idealistic Joe but also takes no prisoners in his titanic rages that kills the soul of anyone in it's path.  As his sphere of influence shrinks from all of Manhattan to a tiny bed in an AIDS ward you cannot help but feel pity for a man who was in such denial of himself and his deeds.

The biggest surprise was Andrew Garfield who made Prior, for all his self-pity, a constantly evolving character, making his fear and bafflement at his physical and celestial destinies all too real while also finding room for the character's humour to shine out.  Russell Tovey was a surprise too as the closeted, hesitant Joe and was unafraid to play up the character's dangerously ambivalent and passively cruel undertow.  Seeing the shows a fortnight apart meant we had two Louises - James McArdle for MILLENNIUM and his understudy John Hastings for PERESTROIKA.  McArdle's banked-down performance took time to warm to but by the time of the excruciatingly funny scene where Louis ties himself in ever-tighter politically correct knots with an increasingly furious Belize he had me onside.  Hastings gave a more vulnerable reading of the character and while maybe not having the level of ability as the others, still was effective as the contrite Louis aware of his failings.

Another genuine surprise was Denise Gough's deliciously spiky Harper, a potentially irritating character who in Gough's hands was anything but, her painful life with the glacial Joe all to realistically played.  She found the mordant humour in her character too and in her final scene she touched universal truths with Harper's reflections on looking down at the world from a plane.  The real scene-stealing performance though was from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, a FIERCE queen and the one character who can tell the truth to whoever he meets.  He really was quite, quite glorious.

Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence between them created a rich collection of characters: Brown travelled a continent-wide arc as Hannah Pitt, Joe's conformist Mormon mother, who slowly softens to become an understanding woman but she also delivered telling performances as Rabbi Chemelwitz, Ethel Rosenberg and Roy's exasperated doctor.  Lawrence made a memorable Angel as well as the friendly HIV unit nurse Emily and Hannah's Mormon friend Sister Ella.  It was a delight too to see the main cast chip in telling cameos: Garfield was also Louis' butch leather pick-up in Central Park who still lived with his parents, Gough was Roy's State Department ally Martin Heller while Lane and Tovey were a hoot as Prior's ancestors sent by The Angel to prepare it's way.

Time and again, the plays proved that there never was a better time to revive them: all Joe's breathless enthusiasm for Reagan making America feel good about itself again, the politics of greed over empathy, Harper's paranoia of a world not caring about the environment and most frighting of all, that the abrasive, vengeful Roy Cohn really was Donald Trump's legal advisor during the 1970s and 1980s.

The run is sold out but there are still two ballots to go which will give you access to book specially reserved seats - - and the plays will be screened as part of the NT Live theatre-to-cinema project

Try and see them however you can - see them for the amazing production, the remarkable cast and for Kushner's dazzling, angry, funny and ultimately profound masterpiece.