Snobbish champagne socialites at the Old Vic

High Society – Old Vic Theatre, until 22 August 2015 (Tickets)wpid-wp-1434876973039.jpg

After a decade at the helm, High Society marks Kevin Spacey’s last show in charge of the Old Vic. If Clarence Darrow was a – not unwarranted – gift from Spacey to himself, a much deserved lap of honour that indulged his love of great character parts and allowed the audience to wallow in the sheer magnetism of the man, then High Society is a chance to give the crowds a little sparkle and razzmatazz as he heads out the door.

In a fortuitous piece of scheduling, I headed to the Old Vic just days after seeing a Berlin & Hart musical (Face the Music) staged splendidly in a tiny theatre pub in east London. To watch both in such close proximity only reinforced the gigantic financial disparities in the theatre world. It is clearly evident on the stage, where Maria Friedman (Merrily We Roll Along) deploys pretty much every available bell and whistle to make the musical in-the-round, and also in the murky world of ticket prices – £10 for High Society, £18 for Face The Music – where corporate sponsorship enables incredible cheap tickets in the face of a steep production budget.

As you are sitting in the baking hot auditorium waiting for the second half to start, it is likely you will be thinking that even £10 seemed a little steep. The first half of High Society is a real mish-mash. It suffers from problems everywhere you look; the story takes time to get going as it labours under a endless series of characters being introduced only to be whisked off in search of a plot device. There is a real absence of decent songs and routines before the interval, whilst some of the vocal talent on display is rather uneven. The only exception is Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a lovely little number that sees Porter’s lyrical wit matched with fun choreography and energetic performances from Jamie Parker and Katherine Pearson.

Then the lights go down, the double bass begins to play and 12 minutes later Nathan M Wright’s superbly choreographed Let’s Misbehave has transformed the evening. It is a fantastic set-piece and one of those glorious numbers that seems as if it will go on and on for the rest of the night. Just as it hits a peak, it will relax before coming back even more impressively with a new routine. This is one of few numbers where the choreography is truly at a West End standard. It even had someone tap-dancing on the top of a piano.

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The Top Ten of 2014: No. 10 through to No. 08

No 10 A Streetcar Named Desire


Link to full review of: A Streetcar Named Desire


No 9 How a man crumbled









Link to full review of: How A Man Crumbled


No 8 - The Crucible










Link to full review of: The Crucible





Our friend, Electra.

Electra – Old Vic, until 20 December (Tickets)

There is no doubting Ian Rickson and Kristin Scott-Thomas make a formidable team; in their four collaborations they have covered Pinter to Sophocles by way of Chekhov, walked off with an Olivier award and garnered a hatful of plaudits. Electra, at the Old Vic, may be the least balanced of the Rickson/Scott-Thomas productions but it is hard to deny the towering performance at its centre from Scott-Thomas that cements her place as a first rate stageAnguish Kristin Scott Thomas Credit Image Alastair Muir actor.

The story of the death of Agamemnon, the duplicity of Clytemnestra, the debasement of Electra and the return of Orestes is one that retained a mythic quality from its origins in Homer and its reappearance in the Delphic Oracle before it found itself reimagined over and over as theatre found its voice and as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides began to create the traditional boundaries of drama.

It is a story that would’ve been well known to its ancient audiences, and just as modern directors continually reinvent Shakespeare so we find ancient Greek playwrights going back to the original myth and reframing it for a new generation. The curious thing about the Old Vic’s version is that it has lost something of why the story would have been regarded as essential to an ancient audience.

Often the disconnect is in modernity jarring too heavily with the ancient world; a problem found in the National’s recent production of Medea, and that ultimately saw Ben Power’s translation tie itself in knots and changing the ending to fit between the two positions. However in Frank McGuinness’ translation the problem is the reverse – whilst the play feels authentically ancient in set and language, the actual plot is strangely pallid. It is hard to know where the tragedy is in what we are watching.

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Ex-dwarf and witches combine to create a potent brew at a transformed Old Vic

The Crucible – The Old Vic, until 13 September

It is unclear whether London is enjoying an Arthur Miller renaissance or whether he is one of those playwrights, like Ibsen or Chekhov, who is bankable enough and with enough star roles in the canon that he will always hover on the fringes ready for a new production. Either way, David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker combined in a pretty much perfect, highly traditional, All My Sons back in 2010, whilst earlier this year Ivo van Hove gave us a radically stripped back A View From A Bridge built around an absolutely blistering performance by Mark Strong.Richard Amitage as John Proctor

Now, just metres down the road from where Strong put in a decent early bid for performance of the year, we have Miller’s The Crucible; a play that is audacious enough to not just have one Eddie Carbone role but several. It is Richard Armitage, playing John Proctor, who dominates the posters – one presumes Hobbit-y fame and a suitably jawline is the primary reason for this but it is a rather misleading image; Proctor may be a central figure, but this is a play that revels in a large cast and in the searching light that Miller casts across the residents of Salem.

That minor quibble aside, a mark of the power of this production is that the audience sat rapt for 3½ hours on the hottest day of the year whilst being subjected to periodic blasts of burning herbs and smoke effects. As good as Miller’s writing may by, those conditions did have the potential to induce a most literal understanding of the play’s title to the poor, sweltering audience members.

It is to the full credit of Yaël Farber that the long running time rarely seems like a drain and the action, simply staged but highly evocative of the period, speeds along building an inexorable momentum through to the third act climax before the sudden transition to a final act of quiet, where the heady atmosphere that has propelled the trials disappears with the disappearance of Abigail and space is given to reflection, on both spiritual and human levels. This is the much-needed calm after the storm and the reflection is for both Miller’s characters and for the audience who are suddenly pulled back out of the manic paranoia of the town.

Farber was responsible for the wildly successful Mies Julie – a South African-set re-examining of Strindberg’s classic – and given the contemporary allegories can be seen as strong now as they were when Miller wrote the play in the long shadow of McCarthyism, it must of have been tempting to look for a way to pin The Crucible to the modern world.

However Farber plays it straight and lets the parallels speak for themselves. It is Miller’s ability to create characters that are of their time but are yet clearly visible in the 21s century that makes The Crucible such an enduring work. The manipulations of Abigail, the fallibility of John Proctor and the hypocrisy of Judge Danforth are traits that are, and will remain, commonplace for as long as there are still humans walking the earth.

The characters in The Crucible may talk in terms of the soul but Miller’s writing is concerned about the psyche. There may be much talk about God and the Devil but it is human emotion that drives much of the action and Farber conjures up periods of quiet amid the maelstrom that allows the audience a moment to glance into the hidden frailties of the characters.

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Spotlight on Spacey

Clarence Darrow – Old Vic Theatre, until 15 June 2014 (Day Seats and Returns only)

And so here we are, eleven years after the decision to hand the keys to one of London’s oldest theatres to one of Hollywood’s most complex faces, Kevin Spacey stars in, what one presumes, is his final turn on the Old Vic
stage. Bringing in an actor to run a major theatre is a wonderfully archaic notion in the cut and thrust of West End economics, but Spacey has stayed the course and quietly become an integral part of the London theatre scene. He has helped bring grandeur back to the theatre and can surely take some credit for the current golden age of performance in the West End (even if writing and directing often remains troublingly conservaKevin-Spaceystrikertive).

Clarence Darrow is the curtain call that Spacey richly deserves. The reviews have been predictably close to hagiography for a performance piece that feels every bit of its 45 years old. Critics are studiously not reviewing the play but instead reviewing the performance. The audience rose as one to acclaim him, over 90% giving a standing ovation both for this role and as a thank you for the last decade.

And indeed why not? This is a moment to loosen the tie, unbutton the shirt and just relax into the company of one of the most charismatic actors to grace the stage. There are very few actors on either side of the Atlantic who I would rather spend 90 minutes in the company of. Even from up in the gods and with almost half of the stage out of sight (although this is not the time to unleash my opinions on the Old Vic’s definition of ‘restricted view) the charisma of the man intoxicates.

Spacey has maintained a visual presence outside of the theatre and Frank Underwood may become his defining role – and one cannot imagine anyone more perfect for the part – but his career has always been marked by the ability to create gloriously ambiguous characters that blur the lines of moral judgement.

While his Richard III may not have been technically perfect it was a gloriously enjoyable performance, the theatrical equivalent of going to see the latest summer blockbuster. With Spacey as Richard it was not hard to see how this crippled hunchback would have so little problem with Lady Anne despite the difficulties of “was ever woman in this humour wooed?” The potency of Spacey’s Richard was more than enough to make us detest and admire him in equal measure.  

He is the kind of actor who has the self-confidence to disappear entirely into the role. So often we see a performance but with Spacey we always see the person. He acts without it being entirely clear that he is doing so, and by so inhabiting the part that there is no space left for the actor. You could pick any of his roles but perhaps it is in Glengarry Glen Ross, American Beauty and, of course, as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects that we see Spacey giving us real people – actual beings, bringing the darkness and the light together – rather than just characters.

The figure of Clarence Darrow is the perfect sign-off role; at a glance his impeccably liberal views may make him seen a rather anodyne figure but Darrow is essentially a small-town boy turned big-city lawyer in Chicago and no-one does that at the turn of the 20th century without a confidence that is born out of one part ferocious intelligence, one part moral purpose and about five parts barn-storming hucksterism.

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Shakespeare (with added song and dance routines)

Kiss Me, Kate – The Old Vic, until 02 March 2013

Having now seen two productions of Kiss Me, Kate, separated by more than twelve years, what immediately stands out is that it becomes far more rewarding experience if one arrives forearmed with a strong knowledge of The Taming of the Shrew. Cole Porter’s signature touches are mixed with a far more literate concept than would be expected from his back catalogue, and in doing so it becomes a musical that manages to both please and perplex,

Cole Porter thought of Kiss Me, Kate, along with Anything Goes, as one of his two perfect musicals and Trevor Nunn is a man who clearly thinks along similar wavelengths. Having been responsible for the National Theatre’s stunning revivial of Anything Goes in 2003, he also takes the reigns here and displays the assured hand of a man who is as equally at home in musical theatre as he is in Shakespeare. No mean achievement and one that pays dividends in bringing Porter’s screwball reinvention of Shakespeare’s lacerating take on gender politics to life.

Kiss Me, Kate_2579ashm_1084_Photo credit Catherine AshmoreNot many musicals stand toe-to-toe with Anything Goes, and not many productions can match Nunn’s revival, which has so far proved to be one of the few great musical moments of the 21st century. It was the last of the great examples of chorus-line choreography, Crazy for You, Top Hat and Singin in the Rain being pale comparisons of the form. It also boasted fine central performances, particularly from John Barrowman as Billy Crocker. And of course it had Cole Porter at his irrepressibly brilliant best.

All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that Kiss Me, Kate is not the equal to Anything Goes. Songs like Wunderbar, Brush Up Your Shakespeare and Kiss Me, Kate are mere shadows of It’s De-Lovely, You’re the Top and Anything Goes. There are occasionally moments where riffs and motifs feel repeated, and parts of We Open in Venice sound like a straight lift from Bon Voyage.

At his best Porter has a verbal dexterity that has only been matched by Stephen Sondheim, a lightness of phrase that can wrap a barb within the most delightful melody and an almost unparelled ability to produce rousing, climaxes that blend dance routines seamlessly with witty lyrics and show-stopping choruses.

Unusually Porter is strongest with the spoken dialogue rather than the music and lyrics. It is without doubt a very intelligent reworking of Shakespeare’s play. There is a level of meta-textual dynamism that is most unexpected from a musical written that was written in 1948 and ran for over 1000 performances. The play presents us with an off-stage version of Kate and Petruchio but also flips the action to show us both faithful, and unfaithful, renditions of the actual Shakespearean parts. Naturally action overlaps between off-stage and on, whilst fictional characters invade the world of the play-within-a-play all the while building to a suitably romantic ending.

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