American am-dram gets an undeserved A-list treatment

Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court @ The Rose Lipman Community Centre, until 03 August 2013

There is a moment, possibly at the almost exact halfway mark, when Lauren (Shannon Tarbet) asks Marty (Imelda Staunton), ‘When do we do any real acting?’ Having watched this two hour, no interval production in stifling temperatures whilst sat in brutally unforgiving seats, it is a question that the audience may feel inclined to agree with. For all the virtues of bringing together a Grade A cast, one cannot escape the fact that this is Grade C play.

Circle Mirror Transformation - Imelda Staunton (credit and copyright Stephen Cummiskey, 2013)Annie Baker’s ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ is set in a Vermont community acting class but it brings with it the self-empowered yippie culture of 1970’s west coast America. Marty, in her wool knit and chunky jewellery, is the very embodiment of the self-actualised individual. Schultz’s (Toby Jones) gift of a dream catcher is perhaps the most apt moment of the play, as there is little that sums up the vacuous, self-obsessed, false spirituality of the new age drama teacher than the appropriation of a native American child’s mobile.

Another Annie looms large over the production; for those lucky enough to have caught Annie Griffin’s (The Book Group) Coming Soon, this play pales in the face of the bleak, biting satire of the am-dram scene. Griffin has a talent for making you watch deeply unsympathetic character and feel real emotion at their travails.

Baker on the other hand cannot resist softening out the production and removing the acidity built out of competition that runs through am-dram up and down the country. It feels that Baker cannot let go of the baby boomer, new age, west coast inspired warmth. She introduces flawed characters and plot lines that create tension and division but doesn’t seem able to let them run naturally, and instead the guiding hand of the playwright is far to evident.

Criticisms of the play aside it must be stated that with a cast this good it really is hard to stop watching. The cast don’t just lift the play, they are the play and they are, in the most literal drama sense, at play. For anyone who has experienced the hermetically sealed world of amateur theatre there is an undeniable pleasure in watching professional actors go through the same exercises that you will have done many times over.

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Advance Notice – Highlights of the Autumn Season 2012

In recent days we have had announcements from both the Royal Court and Michael Grandage of their upcoming seasons. Representing the very different ends of the theatrical experience for audiences; the small intimately thrilling Royal Court where so many of our great playwrights were given a space to write and the cavernous and wallet-sapping Noel Coward Theatre, the name alone indicative of its West End heritage. It is heartening to think of Grandage’s past as Artistic Director of The Crucible and a ten-year stint at the Donmar and realise that it is still possible to trace a line from the heart of regional theatre all the way to the money-making centre of the British stage.

One might grumble about the prices of Grandage’s plays but it cannot be denied that a West End line-up containing two Shakespeare’s, a McDonagh and a new play by John Loga, whilst, maybe not groundbreaking, provides rather more interest than the usual fare of rehashed musicals, Coward revivals and vehicles for ageing American celebrities. Ticket prices may be steep at the top end but, as I have commented elsewhere, the £10 tickets actually undercut the National’s Travellex offer and, if star power is what you are after, provide fantastic value for money. Whilst advertised as ‘moderately restricted view’ I have found the seats to be absolutely adequate and you would miss virtually none of the action. Given they are available in both the Royal and Upper Circles they arguably offer better value for money than the Gallery tickets that are the next cheapest but are  already edging towards an uncomfortable £27.50 for seats right up in the gods.

With information about the National Theatre and the Barbican already available we can see that the upcoming months look very rosy indeed. And as a public service, Civilian Theatre is very happy to provide you with a month-by-month guide to the most interesting plays over the coming months (a growing requirement as it is becoming more and more evident that theatre is going the same way as gigs and stand-up comedy and selling its major events anything up to 18 months in advance – Jude Law in Hamlet in November 2013 anyone? Not busy I hope?)

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September 2012

London Road (National)

This may be a last chance to catch one of the most interesting and innovative musicals in recent years. It sadly had the misfortune to go up against the Matilda juggernaut in all the major award ceremonies and as a result came home empty-handed but this tale, based on documentary footage taken from Ipswich in the aftermath of the discovery of five bodies in 2006 and put to music by Adam Cork, is one of the most complex and affecting new musicals in a long time. A real slow-burn hit, its success can be seen in the major summer revival it was given by the National just a year after it was first introduced. September is possibly the last time you will be seeing it in quite a while so go while you can.

Mademoiselle Julie (Barbican)

Hopefully not setting myself up for a fall after the general disappointment of Cate Blanchett in Big and Small – where the size of the play failed to meet the stature of the actor – we see Juliette Binoche meet Strindberg as another entry in the Barbican’s generally excellent international programming. Binoche is one of the deserved greats of French acting; an actress capable of turning down Spielberg’s Jurassic Park for a role in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (now that is range). The set photos are fascinating and suggest a radical take on a work famed for its naturalistic excellence:

love and information (Royal Court)

Whilst not to everyone’s tastes, a new play by Caryl Churchill is certainly not something to be ignored. One of Britain’s leading playwrights over the last 40 years and an icon for the current generation of female writers who grew up on Top Girls and Cloud 9, Churchill returns to the Royal Court with a new play, love and information. Details are scarce other but it looks likely that it will be a continuation of Churchill’s abiding fascination with non-linear story-telling and the use of the less naturalistic elements of theatre, as she creates a panoramic landscape of over 100 characters.

Hamlet (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

In what was very high up Civilian Theatre’s ‘Must Watch’ list was this import from Denmark – The Tiger Lillies performing Hamlet. Unfortunately recent news tells us that it has been cancelled for ‘scheduling issues’ but if they can find a slot for it in 2013 then I urge all to go and see it. The Tiger Lillies describe their own music as Brechtian street opera and are instantly memorable for all of those who had the fortune to see their version of Shockheaded Peter many moons ago. For those who have missed their vaudevillian morality tales then here is a performance of a song from Shockheaded Peter:

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For more on the Autumn Season, including highlights from October and November then please click through for more.

John Arden (1930 – 2012)

John Arden, a forgotten giant of the post-war renaissance in British theatre, has died at the age of 81. Long based in Ireland following a series of disputes with the English theatrical scene, Arden continued to write plays that were sharply critical of the British establishment’s policy towards his adopted homeland. However it is for his early work, which at the time were both commercial and critical failures, that his legacy will remain. 

Like so many other writers of the period, Arden came through the Royal Court’s Writer’s Group and his first play, The Waters of Babylon, highlighted his desire to engage with the social issues of  the time but also to avoid the trap of moralisation and gritty social realism. It also demonstrated Arden’s uncanny ability to pre-figure national events that were yet to break into the public consciousness, with a plot that identified the simmering tensions over immigration that were to explode in Notting Hill, eleven months after the play opened.

His plays were flops by any stretch of the imagination, Live Like Pigs managed 25% houses while Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, a play now regarded as a modern classic was dismissed by critics and saw almost 4 out of 5 seats remain empty. A reaction to the shooting of villagers in Cyprus by British soldiers, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was quickly reassessed as a major work and it won the Evening Standard Best Play award in 1960.

Like so many writers who never quite achieve the status they deserve, Arden proved to be too radical for mainstream consumption. Radical in his politics – he was a Marxist intellectual who used his plays to challenge the established order and was an ardent pacifist- he was also a radical in his writing. Arden’s plays are a rich and vivid affairs that blend prose, poetry and songs. He had a remarkable talent for dialect that allowed his characters to spring fully-shaped from the page. He also offered the audience no obvious direction as to whether their moral sympathies  should be directed –  characters that would normally be signposted as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ remain equally vibrant and engaging, leaving critics unsure as to what the message of his play were supposed to be.

Today Arden remains an underperformed playwright but Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance retains a major influence on writers. The fact that it is hard to remember how innovative it was to see a play use a historical setting to discuss current events is a measure of how ahead of his time Arden was in using a narrative device that is now a common feature of playwrights looking for a new angle in which to express old ideas.

Arden’s influence can be seen in the most recent play to be acclaimed as a British masterpiece – Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Like Serjeant Musgrave, the story of ‘Rooster’ Byron seems to exists in a nether world where the threat of the outside is ever-present but does not encroach until the latter stages of the play, the characters are portrayed with a degree of moral ambivalence that makes it difficult for the audience to apportion their sympathies and there use of dialectal realist language mixed with prose poems and songs are reminiscient of Arden’s signature style.

Read the Guardian Obituary

Read the Telegraph Obituary

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.