March 10, 2013
Clive Hirschhorn reviews The Audience starring Helen Mirren at the Gielgud Theatre in London.
Clearly adopting the maxim ‘if at first you succeed, try again’, Helen Mirren and playwright Peter Morgan return to the subject matter of their triumphant Oscar-winning hit, The Queen, in a sketchy albeit highly entertaining new play, The Audience.
Covering the 61 years Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne, the play’s clever conceit is to eavesdrop on HRHs weekly Tuesday evening meetings with whatever prime minister happens to be in power.
Six decades of monarchy have put the Queen in weekly contact with no fewer than 12 PMs – two more than the long-reigning Victoria – and Morgan makes us privy to what might have been said by eight of those 12 PMs behind closed doors. I say ‘might’ because as everyone must know, those weekly consultations remain private. No minutes have ever been taken and regardless of the trivialities that may have been discussed, utter secrecy remains the keynote.
Given that Her Majesty, as a constitutional monarch, has no authority to influence party policy – her role being merely to listen and, should she choose, to offer advice that may or may not be taken – Morgan’s task was to invent a series of discussions based on received knowledge of the PMs in question.
It’s quite an ‘ask’ and he’s only partially successful in pulling it off. His portrayal of Harold Wilson as a scruffy, somewhat impertinent in-your-face lefty during his false note as did John Major’s self-effacement and low-opinion of his abilities. On one occasion we see him in tears, on another he is embarrassing the queen by questioning the usefulness of the monarchy in general and the royal family’s vast expenditure in particular.
Though serious topics are addressed – such as Anthony Eden’s duplicitous reasons for Britain’s invasion of Suez in 1956 and Margaret Thatcher’s angry insistence that there will be no sanctions against South Africa during that country’s apartheid regime – the play is at its most entertaining when it comes to gossip and personal revelations. The scenes in which the older Elizabeth is in conversation with her much younger self – a child already aware of the future demands and sacrifices she will one day have to make – are genuinely moving, while a wet weekend Harold Wilson shares with the Queen one summer at Balmoral is a delight, showing HRH and the PM’s genuine appreciation and enjoyment of one another.
Towards the end of the play the Queen is asked whom she considers the favourite of what she calls her ‘dirty dozen’. She refuses to say, of course, but Morgan leaves you in no doubt on whom that honour would be bestowed.
There is no question that, for all its shortcomings as a fully-realised play, The Audience is a walloping crowd-pleaser and a superb vehicle for its star Helen Mirren, who gives an appropriately magisterial performance. Her frequent changes of costumes and wigs undoubtedly play their part in this panoramic overview of Elizabeth’s rise from her first tentative meeting with a somewhat doddery albeit patronising Winston Churchill to her octogenarian maturity in dealing with David Cameron who, briefly, sends her to sleep. But they’re just a visual aid.
The real strength in Mirren’s performance comes from within. A look, a subtle gesture, a raised eyebrow, a calculated pause, the inflexion of certain words. It’s the little things she uses so tellingly to build a larger picture of the woman she is portraying. She has created very first encounter with HRH struck a the impossible: a believable portrait of a monarch known for guarding her privacy. After just under two and a half hours in her company you really feel you know and understand this extraordinary woman. And that’s no mean achievement.
Though there are moments – especially in the play’s first half when Morgan’s characterisations of the 8 PMs he has chosen (but not, interestingly, Tony Blair, about whom, I suppose, it could be argued, he has written more than his fair share) is guilty of some caricatural behaviour redolent of TV’s Spitting Image, an excellent supporting cast bring them enjoyably to life. Particularly effective are Nathaniel Parker as an insensitive Gordon Brown, Paul Ritter as a vulnerable John Major, Rufus Wright as a confident, manfully-striding David Cameron, Michael Elwyn as a manipulative Anthony Eden and Richard McCabe, crowd-pleasing if somewhat buffoonish as Harold Wilson.
Edward Fox is miscast but does gamefully as an 11th-hour replacement for Robert Hardy as Churchill, while Haydn Gwynne has the vocal authority for Margaret Thatcher but is physically wrong.
Stephen Daldry expertly directs a sumptuous, well-designed (by Bob Crowley) production that will take the town. If you haven’t already got tickets, be prepared for returns only.
Reprinted by kind permission of This Is London
October 25, 2011
A round-up of reviews for Death and the Maiden at the Harold Pinter Theatre starring British film actress Thandie Newton (Crash), in a strictly limited run of Ariel Dorfman’s explosive drama, directed by Jeremy Herrin.
October 11, 2011
A round-up of reviews for Backbeat at the Duke of York’s Theatre. David Leveaux directs the story of how The Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe – embarked on their journey to international stardom, starting out in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg playing rock ‘n’ roll covers night after night. Based on the movie Backbeat, it reveals the compelling triangular relationship between the band’s original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, German photographer Astrid Kirchherr and his best friend John Lennon.
July 16, 2010
Reviews have been largely positive but tinged with disappointment for Matthew Warchus’s new production of David Hirson’s 1991 play La Bete at the Comedy Theatre in London.
The much anticipated revival features an all-star cast including US theatre and TV star David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), and national treasure Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous). However, it was recent Olivier Award winner Mark Rylance (Jerusalem) who stole the show for the critics with his energetic and hilarious performance.
The play is directed by acclaimed, Tony award winning director Matthew Warchus and will run at the Comedy Theatre for a short season until 28 August before moving straight to Broadway.
April 15, 2010
There was much reminiscing at the Gielgud Theatre last night for the opening of HAIR. The award-winning Broadway revival, which has moved lock, stock and smoking doobie to London courtesy of Cameron Mackintosh, prompted much nostalgia from the critics, many of whom remembered the original production (Charles Spencer in the Telegraph was particularly sweet: “for old hippies like me, the show offers two and a half hours of theatrical bliss”. The critics were largely positive, with much praise heaped on Diane Paulus’s well-judged production and the enthusiasm and energy of the cast.
TI: It can’t and doesn’t have the freshness of the moment when Hair first hit a London that had just binned the theatrical censor. But it’s exhilarating, as well as oddly poignant… This is a production whose unstoppable energy and ebullient choreography more than compensate for what could, I suppose, still be considered flaws.
TE: More than 40 years since its premiere, this greatest of all rock musicals can still inspire violent antipathy among the straitlaced. That strikes me as being one of its strengths.
IN: The great thing about this joyous production of the mother of all rock musicals, a total transplant of the recent Broadway revival, is that it makes a bad book look better and the already good music sound great.
GU: Hair is more than just a musical: it is a social and cultural phenomenon, a jubilant assertion of life and freedom and a cry of protest against politicians who, in the late 1960s, sent a generation of young Americans to war.
DM: Big and fuzzy, that’s Hair. An energetic revival of the 1960s anti-war musical has just reached London and the striking thing, apart from the noise and spectacle, is that the Vietnam era’s youth were so much bolder than recent Western youngsters in their reaction to American warfare.
ON THE CAST
TI: With the marvellously febrile Will Swenson to the fore, shaking his long black locks at zombie America, I was time-warped to the turbulent, anarchic feel of 1968.
TE: The verve and energy of the company, who frequently make forays into the audience, ruffling the spectators’ hair and kissing them on the cheek, is irresistible… Will Swenson’s comic but deliberately un-endearing performance in the leading role of Berger… Caissie Levy is tender and touching as the girlfriend he treats so cruelly, Gavin Creel deeply moving as the confused Claude
IN: Will Swenson’s bestial Berger – you couldn’t say he was a ham Berger – exudes a rugged charm even when mooning bare-bottomed at the audience. He has the dark good looks of Oliver Tobias, who played the role here, and doesn’t seem to be “acting” at all. There are some great voices as well as his, notably Sasha Allen’s gorgeous Dionne, who take us back to the Age of Aquarius and Darius Nichols’s Afro-wigged Hud with a big creamy bass.
GU: I can only salute the cascading energy of her cast led by Gavin Creel as Claude, Caissie Levy as the demonstrating Sheila, Will Swenson as the shaggily stoned, self-consciously hammy Berger and Sasha Allen as the brass-lunged Dionne.
DM: [But] the lack of narrative is balanced by the panache of the actors. Only the most reactionary grump could fail to applaud their professionalism. The sheer stamina needed to keep that wall of noise going all evening is remarkable.
BOOK AND MUSIC
TI: Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book might often have been improvised by stoned beatniks, but Galt MacDermot’s songs, with their tributes to sodomy, onanism and (weirdly) “Manchester, England”, still zing.
IN: …the score by Galt MacDermot, with a handful of chart-topping numbers and a bountiful mix of great jazz ballads, raw blues and choric anthems, remains as irresistible as ever: the “Hare Krishna” chorus elides into the “Where Do I Go?” Act I finale in which the cast’s nudity is now delivered as a graceful and moving statement of helplessness and vulnerability.
DM: That hits you, as does the paucity of plot. The first 40 minutes are almost entirely unexplained – it’s just one high-pulse introductory solo after another – and the second half suffers a long, heinously dull hallucination scene.
ON THE DIRECTOR
TE: Diane Paulus’s production brilliantly succeeds in letting the audience imagine it is present at a Sixties happening where sex and drugs and rock and roll (not to mention full-frontal nudity) combine to create a world of bleary bonhomie, naive idealism and political radicalism.
IN: Diane Paulus’s production pulls the clever stunt of turning the protest into a lament for Claude as the tribe “let the sunshine in” and disperse through the stalls, leaving a corpse in uniform out in the snow. It’s a stunning conclusion, managing to avoid both glutinous sentiment and mawkish piety.
GU: The great thing about Diane Paulus’s revival, which imports an entire Broadway company to London, is that it sees the show in two ways. It recognises that Hair was a product of its time, yet it also presents it as a vibrant, joyous piece of living theatre.
GU: Without attempting to emulate the pyrotechnic, strobe-lit dazzle of Tom O’Horgan’s original production, Paulus also makes this a genuinely tribal show in which the spirit of the ensemble is greater than any individual. Above all, Paulus and her music director, Richard Beadle, give full value to Galt MacDermot’s 40 songs
TI: And, boy, can these performers sing. It doesn’t wholly matter that the show needs a less traditional playhouse than the Gielgud when they celebrate freedom by sprawling into the aisles and the stalls. They do something better. They raise the old theatre’s roof.
TE: …this is essentially an ensemble show in which the whole company shines, while also suggesting the dark shadows of the hippie dream.
IN: It is, sui generis, one of the great musicals of all time, and a phenomenon that, I’m relieved to discover, stands up as a period piece with as much vitality and appeal as, in their own way, do No, No Nanette and The Boy Friend.
GU: But what matters is that it celebrates a period when the joy of life was pitted against the forces of intolerance and the death-dealing might of the military-industrial complex. As Shakespeare once said: “There’s sap in’t yet.”
DM: Forty years on, we are wiser about the sapping, ruinous effects of hallucinogenic drugs. We have also started to realise that the baby-boomer generation was spoilt and, in numerous ways, destructive and fake. When you consider that the draft-dodgers included later warmongers such as Bill Clinton and George W Bush, it doesn’t do much for the brand. And yet here, albeit with great gusto, albeit to shrieking acclaim, such creeps are being romanticised as enlightened and somehow brave. Despite the admirable production values, that stinks.
KEY TO CRITICS:
January 27, 2010
Review of Twelfth Night at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London
How much silliness there is in the Christmas and New Year season. Why, Shakespeare himself gives us in the timely ‘Tweflth Night’ (that is, Epiphany or 6th January to us) the fat, farting Sir Toby Belch and the foppish fool, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. In between their antics we are entertained by the muddled romances of twins Viola and Sebastian, who each believe the other dead in a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a man in order to serve a certain Duke Orsino; she apparently looks so much like her brother in this guise that no one can tell them apart. Hmm.
But it’s no use applying modern genetic logic to the Bard’s comedies. Even when we are sure of the outcome, it’s always fun to watch Viola – here played by the pleasingly androgynous Nancy Carroll – fall in love with the Duke, only to be sent by him as a messenger to woo the countess Olivia. The exquisite pain of it all!
But all poignancy is counterbalanced by the mirth of mistaken identity. Olivia promptly falls in love with Viola (how odd) and will be doomed to disappointment unless – could it possibly be? – her twin brother turns up and accedes, all bemused, to her desire to marry him.
This RSC production is headlined, at least in the minds of a local audience, by TV star Richard Wilson, cast as the countess’s steward. This is a man full of pomp and ceremony, so that he inevitably falls prey to a wicked practical joke played by Belch and Aguecheek. Persuaded by a fraudulent letter that Olivia secretly loves and admires only him, he adorns himself with cross gartered yellow stockings (as per her supposed tastes in fashion) and fantasises aloud about his future role as consort instead of servant. The two pranksters, meanwhile, hide in the Cubist-styled foliage of a tree to listen and laugh, their heads popping out like so many tourists posing behind comic beachside boards.
This is quite funny, although it has to be said that Wilson, notwithstanding his cut glass accent, lacks the required diction for Shakespearean verse-speaking, so that you have to strain to understand him.
The rest of the cast are, as you might expect, excellent. The erotic frisson between Nancy Carroll and Jo Stone- Fewings as the Duke sustains us throughout with its titillating prospect of hopeless love which will somehow bear fruit, while Alexandra Gilbreath as Olivia is both pretty and pretty determined to have her man. How modern: we love her.
There is live music, merriment and even sword fighting to point up the Bard’s rapier wit. Enjoy.
SUE WEBSTER. Courtesy of This Is London.
January 15, 2010
Round-up of reviews of LEGALLY BLONDE at the Savoy Theatre in London
The reviews of Legally Blonde, which opened on Wednesday at the Savoy Theatre in London, were largely positive. Cleverly the producers allowed critics to review preview performances as well as the official First Night – which meant they were exposed to some of the hard-core fans that have alreday started to gather around this show. This was a smart move as the infectious enthusiasm of the audience won over many of the critics – all of whom seemed to come to the show with misgivings.
Whilst nearly all the reviews had reservations about the plot, they couldn’t resist being taken by the tongue-in-cheek humour of the show, and particuarly the strong central performce of Sheridan Smith as Elle Woods (see a summary of the plot here). All apart from Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail…
DM: Legally Blonde is so pink it is as though the IRA planted a bomb in the late Dame Barbara Cartland’s laundry basket. It is pink not just in the colour of many of the clothes and stage effects. It is pink to the core of its little, tiny soul.
ES: It’s not often that a West End musical references Simon Cowell, case law and the science of getting a perm. But this is Legally Blonde, in which gags about spring break rub up against throw-aways about Gloria Steinem and Thomas Hobbes, and with its mix of daftness and knowingness this sugary yet far from stupid romp will surely be a palpable hit.
VA: Size, as they say, matters. That idea is not lost on Sonia Friedman and her raft of U.K. producers on “Legally Blonde,” who have put the show in a smallish house more accustomed to plays than lavish tuners. Their financial gamble pays off big time thanks to a heap of reasons, chief among them being casting. This guilty pleasure of a show remains precision-engineered candy-floss, but as Elle, pint-sized knockout Sheridan Smith gives it heart and helium levels of happiness.
TI: Omygod, as a jazzily dressed set of sorority sisters keep squealing at the start of the delightful, annoying, supremely wishful musical that’s just come frolicking into Blighty from Broadway. Omygod, a girl can make it in a male-dominated world without sacrificing a dab of pink lipstick.
IN: I had thought snootily that the stage show of Legally Blonde might put the “ugh” in “euuuugh!” But omigod was I like totally blown away.
GU: It is, of course, preposterous: an LA fashion student conquers Harvard law school and becomes a courtroom star. But, for all its absurdity, I found this Broadway musical infinitely more enjoyable than the 2001 Hollywood movie on which it is based.
TE: OMIGOD! I tried, I really tried to hate this show, but resistance is futile. It’s going to be a huge hit and if you’re a chap, your wife or girlfriend is almost certain to drag you along. You might as well give in gracefully now.
ON SHERIDAN SMITH
ES: Sheridan Smith is emphatically the star of the show… It’s a performance of great warmth and enthusiasm.
IN: With her brilliantly warm, winning, witty and all-round adorable performance as Elle, Sheridan Smith achieves stage stardom like some jaw-dropping hole-in-one in golf… This girl can twirl on a dime and take you from elating silliness to genuine sadness in less time than it takes to say “Delta Nu”.
VA: Elle dreams of a bright and shiny life, a hope-filled demeanor Smith delivers in spades. It’s infectious and immensely winning because she deploys razor-sharp comic timing without ever sacrificing properly developed emotion. She’s deliciously knowing but never arch. Even when surrounded by silliness, she has an uncanny knack of making you lose sight of the performer, to empathize directly with the character’s hopes and dreams.
TE: The chief glory of the show is Sheridan Smith as Elle, blessed with vitality, warmth, great comic timing and sudden moments of touching vulnerability. She is infinitely more likeable than Reese Witherspoon in the film.
GU: Sheridan Smith as Elle is also far more vivacious than Reese Witherspoon. Smith is perky, trim, and sings and dances excellently. But her true star quality lies in her sense of mischief, which I first noticed when she was a teenager appearing with the National Youth Music Theatre. Blessed with the long upper lip of a natural comic, Smith sails buoyantly through the show with a radiant smile as if warning us not to take it too seriously.
DM: Miss Smith’s singing voice is not strong but she brings a likeable cheekiness to the part. A crueller critic might wonder if she is glamorous enough for the role.
IN A NUTSHELL
ES: Legally Blonde is a winner. It’s energetic and amusing, with a sprightly sense of pace, and all but the most flinty-hearted theatregoers will leave it flushed with delight.
IN: It may not be quite as good as Hairspray (it lacks that show’s lovely, double-bluffing libertarian dimension), but it’s ridiculously enjoyable from start to finish and camp peroxide-perfection in terms of its showbiz roots.
VA: this transfer looks set to thrive as long as Smith wants to stick around and steal hearts.
TI: Let’s overlook some forgettable tunes and welcome dance that embraces everything from skipping with ropes to spoof Riverdance. Let’s relish the support both of a fake-Greek chorus dressed as cheerleaders and of two cute, unnaturally obedient dogs. Let’s agree that Legally Blonde is, well, fun.
TE: This is rom-com with a welcome touch of irony.
GU: I can only report that the predominantly female audience with whom I saw the show seemed to be having a whale of a time and did not give a damn about the fact that the musical is little more than a nonsensical fairytale.
DM: The plot is pap, the musical unmemorable, the dancing often hefty except for one routine with skipping ropes.
KEY TO REVIEWS:
GU = Guardian: Michael Billington. Read review
TE = Telegraph: Charles Spencer. Read review
TI = The Times: Benedict Nightingale. Read review
VA = Variety: David Benedict. Read review
IN = The Independent: Paul Taylor. Read review
ES = Evening Standard: Henry Hitchings. Read review
DM = Dail Mail: Quentin Letts. Read review