A new star shines brightly in Constellations

Constellations – Duke of York’s Theatreuntil January 05 2013

The transfer to the West End of Constellations, the latest play by Nick Payne, caps what has been, by any measure, a remarkably successful year for someone oft-referred to as one of Britain’s brightest young playwrights. With a Stars that I did see at Nick Payne's Constellations (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall)bone-fide A-list actor cast in New York and clutching an Evening Standard Best Play Award for Constellations – a play wearing its learning on its sleeve and displaying an innate understanding of the mechanics of plotting far beyond Mr Payne’s 28 years – it can be difficult to tell whether ‘brightness’ is a reference to the current luminosity of his career or the marked intelligence that he brings to the theatre.

To write a play about string theory that looks to ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’ is a sizable task. Given the complexity of the topic and perceived tensions between the two schools of thought, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are relatively few plays about science and so, given the lack of comparators and the formidable confidence required to attempt such a mesh, it is perhaps inevitable that parallels will be made with Tom Stoppard.

It would perhaps be unfair to challenge Mr Payne to step into the shoes of one of Britain’s most eminent post-war playwrights but parallels can be discerned– at the age of 30 Mr Stoppard wrote an audaciously confident of his own in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’. It remains one of the few Shakespeare-inspired works of art that can be held up to its inspiration and look it straight in the eye. The ease with which real scientific and philosophical rigour is interweaved with one of drama’s most potent works is frightening.

Stars that I didn't see at Nick Payne's Constellations

To say that Constellations does not quite match that gold standard is no disgrace because Constellations is very good on its own terms. It maintains intellectual ambition whilst driving a more humanist approach to comedy that is far more modern than either the farce of Michael Frayn or the rather mannered intellectualisms of Stoppard. The resultant characters are able to display much more in the way of warmth and manage to avoid the rather calculating artifice that affects much farce.

<<Click here to read full review>>

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Furious speculation and petulant snubs

The Evening Standards are almost upon us, so it is time to cast eyes over the shortlist. Harrumph over those missing from the list and make pointlessly futile predictions over who might be coming out on top. As usual we see the usual suspects vying for position.

This year the National leads the way with nine nominations, squeezing out the Royal Court with eight. Most disappointed must be the Donmar with just two nominations and a complete shut-out in both Best Actress and Best Actor catagories despite a number of barnstorming performances from Derek Jacobi, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

As usual the commercial sector is poorly represented and even in the musicals category they are squeezed by a National and a RSC production in London Road and Matilda respectively. However it is possible to see the faintest glimmer around the edges as Theatre Royal Haymarket managed to sneak a nomination for Sheridan Smith in Flare Path and a number of other nominations that never quite made it off the longlist. While it is far too early to say, it could be the start of a private theatre that plans to lead with serious, if understandably traditional and crowd-pleasing, drama.

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Best Actor

Bertie Carvel Matilda RSC Stratford and Cambridge Theatre
Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein National’s Olivier
Charles Edwards Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare’s Globe
Jonny Lee Miller Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Well the most interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is the double-header of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller being nominated for Frankenstein. It would have been cruel to have nominated one without the other but the question is whether they will pull votes away from each other and allow a sneaky victory for either Bertie Carvel or Charles Edwards to slip through in the ensuing mayhem. Either way looking at the shortlist it feels that it may have been a slightly weak year for male leads – with certainly no standout performance to stand alongside Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet of last year and the England-sized shadow of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

There are some notable omissions from the shortlist and James Corden in particular should perhaps feel most put-out by the lack of inclusion. He received universally rave reviews for One Man, Two Guvnors and the play had a host of 5* reviews and earned a nomination in its own right for Best Play. No space either for the Hollywood A-list of Spacey, Fiennes and Law; with Law perhaps producing the most transformative performance of them all in Anna Christie and re-establishing his right to be called a credible actor.

Will Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein (successfully holding off the split vote)

Should Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors / Jude Law – Anna Christie

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Natasha Richardson award for Best Actress

Sheridan Smith Flare Path Theatre Royal Haymarket
Samantha Spiro Chicken Soup With Barley Royal Court
Kristin Scott Thomas Betrayal Comedy Theatre

The formidable Kristin Scott Thomas looms large over the Best Actress category; bringing a stately grandeur and the imperious air of a known winner to proceedings. A handsome, well-acted Pinter play has awards written all over it but it hasn’t caught the eye in any of the other catagories so it is possible that it doesn’t quite have the legs to deliver the prize to Kristin.

It is entirely possible that the mass of goodwill that Sheridan Smith generated in Legally Blonde may transfer over to her first major lead in a straight play. And we are in a Rattigan centenary year as well. So as the stars seem to align for one double S, it appears the other, Samantha Spiro may be leaving empty handed despite an immensely powerful performance in Chicken Soup with Barley.

In a double blow for Anna Christie and the Donmar, Ruth Wilson joined Jude Law in failing to make it off the shortlist. Looking at the plays, we have a Rattigan, a Wesker, a Pinter and no room for any Americans. Perhaps as uncertainty swirls all around there has been a reward for those choosing Britain’s great 20th century playwrights to reflect on the modern psychology of the nation.

Will Win

Sheridan Smith – Flare Path

Should Win

Samantha Spiro – Chicken Soup with Barley

Should Have Been Nominated

Ruth Wilson – Anna Christie

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Best Play

The Heretic Richard Bean Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean National’s Lyttelton
Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo Almedia
Tribes Nina Raine Royal Court

Following my previous point about American plays, I suspect that we can count Becky Shaw out of the running. Undoubtably a strong play, I feel its previous history running off-Broadway may count against it in the final reckoning. Richard Bean can count himself unlucky to be nominated twice for Best Play but failed to even make it to the shortlist for Best Director. If people vote for the man rather than the play, we may see both The Heretic and One Many, Two Guvnors miss out on a split vote.

If this logic means Tribe picks up the award then justice may well have been done, as it would be just reward for a young writer’s elegant handling of the contentious topic of disability. Whilst not containing the full liberating freedom of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it manages to free the topic from its normal parameters in order to confront the traditional Royal Court audience with a painful dose of reality. After last year’s win for the hugely successful Clydebourne Park, it appears the Royal Court may have found a rich vein of form in forcing its liberal supporters to reassess their underlying beliefs and prejudices.

Will Win

One Man, Two Guvnors – Richard Bean

Should Win

Tribes – Nina  Raine

Should Have Been Nominated

Wittenberg – David Davalos

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Ned Sherrin Award For Best Musical

Betty Blue Eyes
London Road
Matilda the musical

Not having seen any of these makes it difficult to comment. However it is hard to see past Matilda the musical sweeping all before it. Rapturous reviews at Stratford for the acting and singing, alongside Tim Minchin’s inspired lyricism; possibly one of the few individuals who would be able to capture Roald Dahl’s imagination. London Road is undoubtably a powerful piece of work but was it so good that you can convince voters to go for such a dour work in traditionally sunny category? Betty Blue Eyes? Reasonably reviews but will  people vote for something that is closing early? I think not.

Will Win

Matilda the musical

Should Win

Matilda the musical

Should Have Been Nominated

Nothing really stands out in what feels like a particularly weak year for musicals despite what the Evening Standard may say on the matter.

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Best Director

Rob Ashford Anna Christie Donmar
Dominic Cooke Chicken Soup with Barley Royal Court
Edward Hall Richard III & The Comedy of Errors Propeller At Hampstead
Mike Leigh Grief National’s Cotteslow

As much as I would love to see Edward Hall pick up a reward for the virtuoso vision that drives Propeller and their all-male Shakespeare productions, it feels like a very big ask for a company that doesn’t have the catchy celebrity names and longstanding reputations of the Donmar and the Royal Court. I think Mike Leigh can be ruled out as well, as loved as he may be this does not feel like a Mike Leigh year and Grief passed me by with little more than a whisper.

Coming down to Rob Ashford and Dominic Cooke we have two plays that highlight the differences in writing on either side of the Atlantic. O’Neill vs Wesker is a mouth-watering proposition. It is shaped up to be an extremely close run race that I supect will be decided by the fact that we appear to be in a period of re-evaluating Wesker,  Chicken Soup… at the Donmar and the The Kitchen at the Nationa. This extra name recognition and a seeming favouring of British playwrights should be enough to swing the judges towards Dominic Cooke.

A lot of big names have missed out. There is no space for Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle for their interepretations of Richard III and Frankenstein. It’s a shame to see Declan Donnellan has not made the cut for The Tempest, although Russian language plays are always going to be a tough sell.

Will Win

Dominic Cooke – Chicken South with Barley

Should Win

Edward Hall – Richard III & The Comedy of Errors

Should Have Been Nominated

Declan Donnellan – The Tempest

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Best Design

Bunny Christie Men Should Weep National’s Lyttelton
Lizzie Clachan Wastwater Royal Court
Adam Cork Sound designer of Anna Christie and King Lear Donmar
Mark Tildesley Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Not much to say on this other than if Mark Tildesley doesn’t win for Frankenstein then I shall eat my hat. The Olivier is a famously difficult to space to work with and while Danny Boyle’s production may have had its problems, the design was not one of them. Visually stunning and a replica steam train on stage; whatever beats it must be out of this world.

Will Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

Jon Bausor –  Lord of the Flies

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Charles Wintour Award For Most Promising Playwright

E.V. Crowe Kin Royal Court
Vivienne Franzmann Mogadishu Lyric Hammersmith
Penelope Skinner The Village Bike Royal Court

Not having seen any of these its hard to comment. However based purely on word of mouth I suspect that Vivienne Franzmann is out in front for Mogadishu. A deserving win could be on the cards for the Lyric Hammersmith that has championed new writing but has often been overlooked in favour of the reputation of the Royal Court.

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Milton Shulman Award For Outstanding Newcomer

Phoebe Fox For her performances In As You Like It (Rose, Kingston) and The Acid Test (Royal Court) and There Is A War (National’s Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby For his performance In Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)
Kyle Soller For his performances In The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic), Government Inspector (Young Vic) and The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
David Wilson Barnes For his performance In Becky Shaw (Almeida)

In one of the more interesting developments across the nominations, we saw husband, Kyle Soller, up against his wife, Phoebe Fox, in the battle for Outstanding Newcomer. Out of the two my money is on Kyle Soller, if in part for an outstanding performance as Khlestakov in the Young Vic’s version of The Government Inspector and an extremely strong follow-up in The Glass Menagarie.

I feel Malachi Kirby will struggle to match this with just Mogasdishu behind him and there will be no justice in the world  if David Wilson Barnes walks off with the award – as any quick glance at his C.V suggests ‘newcomer’ maybe laying it on a bit thick.

Time to cast your votes

As the nights draw in and the idea of schlepping down to the West End for an overpriced seat in an underheated auditorium begins to lose its appeal, it is time to join the Evening Standard in casting an eye over the years productions in order to bestow upon one the arbitrary title of Best Night Out. It is of course unfortunate that ‘Best Night Out’ is indelibly linked in my mind to provincial towns and phrases like ‘Mega-Bingo’ and ‘introducing Top Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood’, but we all have our crosses to bear.

So without further ado, the shortlist:

 

 

 

BATMAN LIVE (The O2 Arena, SE10)

Really, REALLY. It is hard to imagine the shortlist getting off to a more inauspicious start. I am not sure which marketing consultant drew a venn diagram between regular theatre goers and fans of Batman films. It is perfectly possible there are many. However they probably didn’t also consider whether all of these fans would rather rent The Dark Knight for a £3.99 than fork out extorniate prices to see Batman battle against a trio of his most deadly enemies: plot, character and action. Like all wars, there were no victors

 

 

 

CHICAGO (Garrick Theatre, WC2)

Yep, still here. After 14 years. As we move from Ute Lemper to Ruthie Henshall to Claire Sweeney to someone from Ugly Betty, one can only presume it is just as good now as it was then. If you are the last remaining person in London not to have seen it, rent the DVD. Its not great but at least its got Queen Latifah in it.

 

 

 

CRAZY FOR YOU (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, NW1 and Novello Theatre, WC2)
Ok, I actually like this. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are building a bit of a reputation for themselves carving out interesting musicals. Last years Into The Woods was revelatory and whilst Crazy For You doesn’t reach those exceptionally high standards, it is great to see a traditional Chorus Line musical hit London, and is comfortable the best musical of its type since the last major revival of Anything Goes.

 

 

 

JERUSALEM (Apollo Theatre, W1)

Still excellent. Still the best play of the 21st century. Still one of the best performances of the 21st century. If you haven’t seen it yet then beg, borrow or steal tickets for its latest London run. The staggering tour-de-force that is Rylance’s performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron makes it hard to imagine it being revived with any other actor in the role.

 

 

 

LA SOIREE (Magic Mirrors, SE1 and Roundhouse, NW1)
Saw La Clique. Sure its much the same. Seen one burlesque show seen them all. Law of diminishing returnsprobably applies. At least it’s not Cirque de Effin Soleil.

 

 

 

LES MISERABLES (Queens Theatre, W1)

Do you hear the people sing? Not if I can help it.

 

 

 

 

OFFICE PARTY (Pleasance Theatre, N7)
Oh god, by its own admission its interactive. Please, please, please will companies stop making us poor audiences become part of the action I am paying you to act, not me. If I could act I would be up there to begin with. Probably best for stag nights and hen parties of people who feel a little bit above Spearmint Rhino.

 

 

 

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (National’s Lyttelton, SE1 and Adelphi Theatre, WC2)
Far better than anyone expected. It is fair to describe this as the breakthrough hit of the summer and a reminder to everyone that James Corden is far more than ‘James Cordon star of Lesbian Vampire Killers’. A fine actor, a fine translation and an absolute comic treat that more than deserves its West End transfer.

 

 

 

THE PITMEN PAINTERS (Duchess Theatre, WC2)

Haven’t seen it. By all accounts it is very good and deserves its West End transfer for taking a wonderful story that is made even stronger by its veracity. Before deciding to book tickets it should be noted that it was created by Lee Hall; a man also responsible for Billy Elliot. My understanding is there is less dancing in this.

 

 

 

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (Waterloo Station, SE1)
I really, really wish that I had managed to see this. By all accounts a lovely idea exceedingly well executed. In hindsight it makes perfect sense to stage this with a vintage steam train but actually using the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo was a magical touch and all those who have seen it have managed a smile while stoically dabbing their eyes with hankies.

 

 

 

SHREK THE MUSICAL (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, WC2) 

So here is a great idea – we have a much loved character that has been slowly eroded by sequels that don’t quite live up to the imaginative reinvention of fairytale stereotypes of the first. Now how can we rejuvenate the brand? There must still be some money that can be squeezed from the pockets of parents somehow. How about a musical that strips all the magic from a fantasy land by spending an extorniate amount on a set, props and make-up that has 1/100th of the charm of the original film? C’mon people you might as well send a cheque straight to Stephen Spielberg.

 

 

 

WICKED (Apollo Victoria Theatre, SW1) 
Actually better than you might imagine. And now with Matt Willis from Busted. Hmm bad news for both the musical and Matt Willis’ solo career then.

If you actually want to vote in this thing (admittedly its not quite X Factor but its always nice to have a say) then you can do so here: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/bestnightout.do

Let the best play win (and please please please don’t be Batman Live).