A Streetcar Named Desire banner

A Streetcar Named Despair (Wait, hang on a second – ed.)

A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic, until 19 September 2014 (Tickets) (NT Live Performance Info)

It is only fair to begin with a disclaimer: this reviewer does not like Tennessee Williams. It is not for want of trying and it is also appreciated that Civilian Theatre is very much in the minority with Williams being held in the highest esteem by a great many people who know a great deal more about the theatre.

However the point stands and after spending close to three and a half hours watching the Young Vic’s current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and quite a bit longer letting opinions slowly ferment in the darkest Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois in Streetcar at the Young Vicrecesses of the brain, it can only be concluded that we are faced with a conundrum – and that is how far a production can be even-handedly reviewed when the play itself is not personally held in particularly high regard.

Benedict Andrews’ stunningly visual and sumptuously performed version of Tennessee Williams’ most famous (and possibly greatest) play wonderful demonstrates the edge that theatre has over other narrative mediums; for in general every piece of cinema is seen as a new piece of cinema, even when a character – such as Frankenstein – is returned to we do not recognise it as the same film produced differently.

Perhaps only, outside of films that began life as stage plays, Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-for-shot remake of Psycho could be considered a genuine replica, and a 37% Rotten Tomatoes rating tells a story all of its own. Literature, that other narrative medium, is tied to its form and could never bear complete repetition of language even as it continually retraces its steps over stories passed down across generations.

It is only theatre where audiences are satisfied by directors going back to the same well – to Shakespeare, to Euripides, to Chekhov, to Williams – and seeing what can be made from the same materials. This desire allows a director to try and breathe new life into familiar conceits and allows the audience to revisit their favourite plays or continually challenge themselves against work that doesn’t appeal to them.

76596630_vanessa-kirbyAnd so begins Civilian Theatre’s obsession with Tennessee Williams (and was there a more appropriate playwright to develop an obsession about?) Regarded as one of the great American dramatists, and with an undoubted flair for writing memorable characters, Williams’ stock is such that he is part of a very small band of playwrights that the commercial West End will take a chance on. As a result over the years this reviewer has watched (or perhaps endured) Night of the Iguana, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll, The Glass Menagerie, The Fat Man’s Wife and now, finally, A Streetcar Named Desire. With the exception of The Glass Menagerie they have proved mainly dispiriting affairs where the southern melodrama successfully manages to match the ripeness of the language with equally ripe performances.

That production of The Glass Menagerie, at the Young Vic in 2010, was built on the back of an exciting new director in Joe Hill-Gibbins, two breakout performances from rising stars, Kyle Soller and Sinead Matthews (everything from Master and Margarita, The Changeling to Blurred Lines in the last couple of years) and a wonderful score. It demonstrated that no matter what you think of a playwright, or his style of writing, it is possible to extract excellence; for even the biggest critics of Tennessee Williams would never deny that the man could write (unfortunately he writes so well he sometimes seems to forget to know when to stop).As it happens A Streetcar Named Desire not only has an exciting director in Benedict Andrews, two breakout performances from Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby (brilliantly taking more than she was given as Isabella in Edward II, and doing a similar job with Stella in Streetcar), and an interesting musical score. It also gives us an ingenious set design and a crackerjack lead performance from Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois.

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Billie Piper bikini pics: Click-baiting and the other skills you need to be a 21st century journalist

Great Britain – Lyttelton Theatre @ National Theatre, until 23 August (transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 10 September)

Leaving aside any judgement on the qualities of Richard Bean’s Great Britain, we must first applaud those involved for what the play attempts – an immediate response to the biggest domestic news story since cash for questions – and how – in the world of social media – they managed to keep it under wraps to pretty much everyone.

There is a certain irony in a play entirely focused on leaks, hacking and exposure being kept secret right up into previews – and that it was achieved by the country’s biggest theatre company, with a lead who has been Great_Britain091.jpgforced to grow-up under the bright glare of the tabloids’ flashbulbs is a remarkable achievement.

Richard Bean proved with his artfully balanced adaptation of Goldoni’s One Man, Two Guvnors that he is capable of broad comedy that captures the public imagination. The play operated as traditional British farce whilst simultaneously deconstructing the genre by breaking through the fourth wall and toying with the audience’s expectations. That it was a success was probably to be expected – with James Cordon reconfirming his exceptional comic talents after a series of mediocre moves in TV and film – but the fact it has become a global mega-smash was not predicted and must have placed an awful lot of pressure on Bean for what he would come up with next.

That his response was to attempt something as ambitious as Great Britain demonstrates he is a man clearly up for a challenge, and it is pleasing to see how admirably he has risen to it. With Great Britain he tries another form of alchemy in attempting to blend the mechanics that drive farce with an attempt to explain a highly complex and incredibly serious series of events that do not deserve to be treated lightly. It is as if Bean was attempting to create the lovechild of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Democracy.

Bean doesn’t succeed in what may have always been an impossible proposition but it is undeniably great fun to see him try. There are an awful of laughs in the show and they come from all angles; from the wonderful faked headlines of the papers – right up to the Guardian’s tagline of ‘we think so you don’t have to’ – to the ribald language of the tabloid’s newsroom, which masks an amazing felicity of expression among the journalists.

The play takes a number of sacred cows and turns them into hamburgers, and as a result the air is thick with gasps followed by laughter. Taking these jokes right to the edge of acceptability is absolutely necessary for the play and it should create an interesting, and uncomfortable, tension for the middle-class, liberal audience members busy reading the Independent on their smartphones, whilst pretending that they are not keeping one eye on the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame.

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To absent friends

The Picture of John Gray – Old Red Lion Theatre, until 30 August (Tickets)

There are some historical figures that give out a siren’s call to literary types, luring them in and then dashing their hopes of genius on the rocks of their own creativity. Shakespeare, Marlowe and Byron have long drawn in The Picture of John Gray 15, Miriam Mahonythe unwary who believe they can find their own light mirrored in the brilliance of others.

Oscar Wilde is another who appears a figure ripe for drama, whose life can be used to both illuminate his own age and reflect upon our own. The problem with Oscar is that he is a man who created such a complete character of himself – set down in his writings and in the aphorisms that survive him – that anyone attempting to write about him needs to be able to match Wilde’s own wit or appear a pale imitation.

The Picture of John Gray – a neat subversion of Wilde’s novel – has perhaps taken heed of the problems that Wilde’s formidable wit poses and tackles the subject at an oblique angle. C.J Wilmann’s play skilfully tells us something about Wilde without the man ever appearing; instead we hear the voices of his associates and as we learn about them, we see Wilde from a new perspective.

It is a play with an Oscar Wilde shaped hole in the middle. It is a bold decision that runs the risk of creating a personality vacuum at its centre – like rewriting Hamlet and focusing entirely on Horatio, Laertes and Ophelia. However it makes the point through his absence that their lives – John Gray, Bosie and all – are, whether they like it or not, indeed whether they particularly care for him or not, irrevocably shaped by him.

Wilmann succeeds in demonstrating some of Wilde’s charismatic force without him ever being present. His personality is what holds them together and they continue to revolve around it and, terribly, it is what pulls them apart. The destruction of Wilde destroys something in each of them and forces their transformation.

Wilde is akin to a tropical storm – exotic, sublime and hypnotic- and they are caught in its eye. The innocent optimism that comes from the still landscape – captured in Bosie’s poem of the love that dare not speak its name – is but a shimmering mirage and too late do they realise the impossibility of escaping the destruction that Wilde has brought upon them.

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An evening with…The Beatles

Let It Be – Garrick Theatre (and variously on tour) [Tickets]

Let it be…said that this reviewer does stray out of their comfort zone occasionally. Children murdered by the mother? Check. Libertarian ethics of avatar paedophilia? Check. An absurdist Bolivian redux of Hamlet? Check. An evening at the Garrick Theatre spent listening to faithful renditions of songs by the most influential band of all time? Well, there is a first time for everything.

beatMany people hate on jukebox musicals but this reviewer does have time for the concept; Buddy, Mamma Mia and Our House all prove that given care and attention, and a back catalogue that can sustain a two hour plundering, it doesn’t have to be an excruciatingly painful evening. Indeed in my opinion the general terribleness of We Will Rock You says more about the quality of Queen’s songbook than it does about the show itself – and the fact that listening to 120 minutes of overblown bombast is more than enough for most people.

Well, no-one is going to claim that The Beatles don’t have the quality to cover the running time of a tribute concert. Indeed quite a fun little game to play on the tube ride home is to come up with a playlist that is just as strong as the one they left in – Oh Darling, I Want You, Nowhere Man, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, She’s Leaving Home, Dear Prudence & Helter Skelter are just some I would have tried to slot in somewhere.

Perhaps it is already a well-known fact but Let It Be is not a musical in any meaningful sense of the word. This is a full blown ‘evening with The Beatles’ affair (except, rather excruciatingly and presumably for copyright reasons, they seem to be called ‘Let It Be’ which does dull some of the mystique).

There is no semblance of plot excepting an intermittent narrator guiding the audience through the years and ticking off all the big non-controversial Beatles milestones. Invading America? Yes. Bigger than Jesus? No. Hippies? Yes. Any overt references to mind-splitting amounts of acid? No. Gently mocking Ringo? Yes. Any mention of Yoko Ono? No.

Really though none of this matters. The producers have drilled to the core of what people want. And that is for those who never got to hear The Beatles the first time round, it is a chance to hear entirely competent covers of classic songs. And that is what you get – a relentless tidal wave of hit-after-hit performed with verve and energy. The music is so good that you cannot help but tap your toes, clap along and join the gustily sung, surprisingly tuneful audience-led rendition of Yesterday.

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I must thank the good people at Official Theatre for the tickets. Even without this shameless plug, please do check out their website to find out what is going on across the West End; it has links to tickets, venue contact details and bits ‘n bobs about all the theatres – the sort of thing I would do if I wasn’t so damn lazy.  (www.officialtheatre.com)

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Where are your god’s now?

Medea – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 04 September (Tickets)

One of the most shocking things about this production of Euripides’ Medea is the discovery that it’s the first time that the National Theatre has staged it in its 50 year history; a startling omission, and all the more appalling MEDEA_2982115bwhen you consider the legion of fine female actors that have graced the stage in that time.

When you consider the paucity of roles for women in pre-20th century playwriting then to ignore one of the great tragedies is astonishing. Medea, more than many of the surviving plays of ancient Greece, has retained its relevance to the modern era as it can rely as much on an understanding of human psychology as it does on the intervention of the Gods.

That it was never picked by the National to ‘inspire debate’, if for no other reason, during the height of the fight for gender equality; it seems an obvious candidate, although a firm hand is needed to steer Medea away from a conspicuously Congreve-inspired ‘…hell a fury like a woman scorned’ and closer to Shakespeare Lear who saw himself as ‘...More sinn’d against than sinning’.

It is a crucial distinction; it is difficult to separate Medea’s anger at Jason’s actions from her anger at her own impotence, but it is essential to make this seperation if Medea is going to be humanised as a tragic figure in her own right. It is like Lear in the storm; we may not fully believe in his argument or in his call for the gods to execute justice on his behalf but we have to believe that his raging is at least partially justified.

Carrie Cracknell clearly believes it would have relevance in the past having seemingly set the play in the 1970s; the period was a boom-time for psychoanalysis and self-discovery, and Helen McCrory’s Medea approach and understanding to her problems is often as someone who has spent time assessing themselves on the couch. The era is reinforced by Tom Scutt’s beautiful design and immediately recognisable period furniture. The plate glass window and minimal lines could come as easily from a Mediterranean villa as they could from a southern Californian hillside.

Dominic Rowan as AegusOver 2014 Cracknell has directed three plays and, along with the A Doll’s House at the Young Vic in 2012, there are clearly thematic links between them. She seems fascinated in the fragility of the individual and particularly those who deliberately set themselves against the grain. A Doll’s House, Birdland and Medea all contain protagonists who must bear the weight of societal pressure to conform; these people are not, in themselves, naturally heroic but find that they cannot bring themselves to act in any other way.

The third play – her collaborative effort with Nick Payne – was Blurred Lines highlighted another theme central to her work; an interest in women and the position they are held in by wider society. Blurred Lines was a painfully powerful expression of real lives, a melange of stories, thoughts and opinions that traversed the spectrum from bleak and melancholy to humorous and life-affirming. A Doll’s House is an established genre-defining work and Medea, well for Medea to work it needs to show the internal complexity that can push a woman to commit what continues to be one of society’s most horrifying taboos.

Helen McCrory is an actress more than capable of producing the subtleties necessary for the role. At 5’4 and with a face that has a pixyish quality McCroy is perhaps not the Medea of the imagination – all strident, astringent anger and physically domineering as the fury whips up around her – and against Danny Sapani’s burly Jason it is apparent that she is never going to go toe-to-toe with him.

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A whistle-stop tour of the antebellum South

Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios, until 30 August 2014 (tickets)

At the start of a new musical there is often a frisson of excitement that doesn’t often occur with new plays; the rarity of a new book, and the possibility that you could be in the audience for the next Chicago, Cats or Sound of MusicDessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander,10 or, alternatively, Gone with the Wind or (fingers crossed) Carrie: The Musical seems to add a certain expectation to the evening.

As a result it is with something approaching disappointment that it must be reported that Dessa Rose proves itself to be an entirely functional musical, with performers and musicians’ skilfully executing what is, in the main, a rather humdrum book from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

Whilst the production has a number of highlights it covers so much ground that you are pulled across decades as quickly as you are across musical styles. It is often not clear when or where you are, and this causes its central theme – that there is a bond between ‘women’ that can cut across the race and income divide of the prejudiced 18th century South – to never be satisfactorily addressed.

Ahrens and Flaherty have some form in producing surface-level musicals that work more as a Wikipedia summation of American history than as a complex emotionally engaging narrative. Ragtime, last seen in the summer of 2012 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, was taken from E.L Doctorow’s novel, and was similarly fated to be rendered down into a deeply and problematically oversimplified tale of the oppressed masses instead of a complex view on America’s rich social-cultural history.

Musicals have taken a leading role in addressing racial prejudice and the experience of black people in America. Porgy and Bess is often held up as one of the greatest American musicals, The Scottsboro Boys finally emerged in the last couple of years as one of Kander & Ebb’s finest creations and, in the same year Ahrens & Flaherty produced Dessa Rose, The Colour Purple was also adapted for the stage.

Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander,28These are not small shoes to fill and Dessa Rose, for all the heart of its performers, never comes close to filling them. There is nothing that comes close to matching Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So as musical numbers, it doesn’t have the natural, shocking wit of The Scottsboro Boys and the twin themes of racism and sexism are far more clearly articulated in The Colour Purple.

Dessa Rose is strongest when the performers and musicians are doing what they do best and the message gets forgotten about for a while. There is a tight-knit quality to the ensemble that suggests a strong rehearsal process and credit must go to Andrew Keates (Director) and Sam Spencer Lane (Choreographer) for some remarkably agile set-pieces on the tiny Trafalgar stage. It is not easy to work on a thrust stage with a cast of twelve but it is an impressively fluid production, and rarely do the actors get under each other’s feet.

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