Come From Away – Phoenix Theatre
After another long week of Brexit and Trump, the most fun to be had this week was in Come From Away which has finally made its Tony-winning way across the Atlantic and into our hearts. Because Come From Away is about nothing so controversial as kindness, the simple and not-so-simple kind of kindness which involves taking care of strangers without thinking of oneself. The town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada, was, older readers will remember, where we used to land when planes couldn’t carry enough fuel to take us all the way from London to New York. We’d stop in Gander for an hour or so, just long enough to do a bit of duty-free shopping and go to a proper loo, and then continue our refuelled flight to wherever we were going. I’m sure I never gave a thought to what was in Gander or even that it was an actual place at all.
But it is. And Come From Away not only takes place there, it’s a true story of what happened on 9/11 when all the flights in the air en route to the US when the attacks happened were diverted away from US airspace to the only airport large enough to accommodate them. 38 airplanes, carrying 7000 passengers, landed in a town of only 10,000 people. Initially, they didn’t know what had happened or where they were and for 5 days they didn’t know when or whether they could leave. The people of Gander immediately rallied to welcome them with food and transport and accommodation and, when it became possible, communication with the outside world. Nobody would accept payment.
The passengers came from all over the world. They spoke different languages, had different dietary needs, differing health requirements, some were Muslim, and one was an orthodox Rabbi who organised the Jewish passengers for prayer and kosher food. The locals fed them, housed them, and took care of them with kindness that we all wish we could show to strangers and privately doubt that we could.
The show is charming. A large cast plays both passengers and locals, the songs, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, are tuneful and forgettable but the characters are anything but. They are all real people and on opening night in London many of the originals we had come to know throughout the evening came on-stage to join the actors. The female airline captain, the gay couple whose relationship didn’t survive the trauma, the nerdy Englishman and the Texan divorcee who met on board and subsequently married, the Egyptian chef who, though the others were initially suspicious of him, took over the cooking, and the townspeople, from the warring union negotiators who laid aside their differences to help the strangers, to the vet who discovered and looked after the animals in the hold, to the ‘ordinary’ people who turned out not to be ordinary at all. The show has its own movement vocabulary which allows quick changes of locale and an ensemble of good actors and singers giving voice to the fears and gratitude of all of them.
This is where you go when Trump and Brexit get you down. A place where simple and not-so-simple human kindness prevails. We can all do it if we try.
9 to 5 – Savoy Theatre
I really love the “What you see is what you get” shows. Even better are the “Exactly what you expected” shows. Two, this week. The irrepressible, and hugely talented, Dolly Parton introduces her musical of the hit movie and the audience, getting exactly what they wanted – working women winning their battles against the male chauvinists who are their bosses. Only one boss, in this case, (Brian Conley in a particularly vulgar turn, grabbing his genitals and mugging shamelessly) and the end was never in doubt for the three secretaries who best him. All other men are pretty dancers who have no part in their campaign except to move around Tom Rogers’ primary coloured set which they do very well to zippy choreography by Lisa Stevens. Bright colours, bright singing, nothing too taxing. But there is a serious point to be made here, very welcome for those of us who are, or were, secretaries, ignored or insulted by the men whose offices and companies we run.
This is a thoroughly professional and enjoyable trundle through the country-tinged catalogue of Dolly’s songs, all of which are bouncy and fun and all of which sound exactly alike. For most of the show I thought the cast was repeating the title song over and over again until it dawned on me that they are actually singing different songs that sound the same, which is what the audience wants. The cast, especially Natalie McQueen in the Dolly Parton role, do a smashing job but the undisputed star of the show from my perspective is Bonnie Langford as the sniffy supervisor. She, with plenty of competition from the other girls, is the best singer, the best dancer, and the best comedienne in the show and her solo number in praise of the boss is a real showstopper.
Only Fools and Horses – Theatre Royal Haymarket
This was the other “exactly what you expect” show of the week. I was at a considerable disadvantage with this one because I’ve never seen a single episode of the sitcom on which it’s based so heavily. But the rest of the audience had and they gave me clues throughout. They knew all the characters and all their punchlines. They knew who would get off with whom and what each would say before they said it. They recognised the situations and the plot turns and roared for every one. I had a very good time without having a clue what was going on most of the time because the people all around me were having such a good time.
The cast, led by Tom Bennett as Del Boy, are terrific. They must adhere closely to the television originals because the audience, who are the experts, loved them. The songs, some original, some traditional, are well sung and cheerful, the script, crafted I understand from the best jokes of the series, is funny and clever, but not too clever, and the whole atmosphere is as good-natured as it gets. You don’t need a brain, nor a political point of view and you’d better stay home if you disapprove of drinking and smoking and swearing but, for the rest of us, but especially for Del Boy’s fans, it’s a bloody good night out.
Berberian Sound Studio – Donmar Warehouse
I read the erudite essay in the printed programmed carefully. All I got out of it was that the type of horror films that Berberian Sound Studio typifies are of the genre called giallo (yellow) movies and that “The experience of shock and disorientation is a direct result of not quite knowing where art ends and reality begins”. Well, that was more than I knew going in, as horror films aren’t my entertainment of choice, and this, it turns out, is based on a real film. It takes place in a sound studio where a nerdy English sound tech is hired to provide effects for an Italian movie. I’m not sure whether it was meant to be scary of itself or comment on scary, or meant to be funny. Most of the play is in Italian as are all of the characters except the nerdy Englishman who speaks nothing but English and not much of that. At the end my main emotion was one of relief that it was over but there were many members of the audience, presumably fans of giallo movies or horror films or the conflict between art and reality, or this film in particular, who were most enthusiastic.
Shipwreck – Almeida Theatre
I didn’t really understand Shipwreck either (are you getting the impression that I’m in the wrong business?) but I liked it because it was profoundly anti-Trump so can’t be all bad. In fact, it isn’t bad at all, it’s a very long-winded and somewhat precious disquisition on the state of America and the world from the perspective of the progressive American Left.
On a very cold night, six friends huddle together around a campfire and complain about Trump. Well, they complain about a great deal more than that but they all seem fairly well-heeled, all are well-educated, all are articulate and knowledgeable which makes them interesting to listen to for quite a lot, not all, of the three hours that they’re talking at us. Like her last play at the Almeida, Anna Washburn’s play goes off the rails towards the end when some of the characters (and some of the audience) turn into creatures and at least one becomes a magician in red satin.
Until then, however, they discuss some of the people and events which have got us to where we are – Jim Jones, Ivanka Trump, Roy Cohn, Harvey Milk, Jim Comey, and all the politicians and journalists who made them stars. There’s a parallel storyline about cross-racial adoption with a wonderful performance from Fisayo Akinade as the Nigerian boy who, adopted by a white couple, doesn’t know who and what he is. That story is much better developed and indeed better reasoned than the scattershot complaints of the ‘state of the society’ story.
As always at the Almeida, the acting is first rate, it’s what the National used to be, and Rupert Goold has directed Shipwreck with delicacy around a huge wooden circle by designer Miriam Beuther. Is it the Round Table or a means of keeping people apart? The plays conclusion – that we are all shipwrecked on our own islands – is inescapable. Like Trump.
All About Eve – Noel Coward Theatre
The set is the colour of dried menstrual blood. The most memorable image is a toilet bowl containing vomit. The talents of several fine actors are unforgivably wasted in a muddle of live staging and video pointlessness. Yes, it’s an Ivo van Hove production. The much lauded directorial darling who gave us that brilliant production of Network and that clever, if bloodless A View From The Bridge, both of which have made their way across to Broadway, has delivered a real stinker this time.
But what a great idea for a stage adaptation. All About Eve was Joseph Mankiewicz’ masterful 1950 examination of power and hubris with women in charge. I was excited to see Gillian Anderson sharpen her teeth on the Bette Davies role of a big star getting her comeuppance from a young upstart Lily James. Instead, Anderson, looking beautiful in An d’Huys’s clothes, is a dislikeable hysteric from the start and James is so transparently after her job that no star with an ounce of perception would let her near her dressing room. I thought Stanley Townsend would make a satisfying meal out of the manipulative critic Addison deWitt, but he has clearly been directed to play him as a particularly vicious Abanazar.
Only the veteran Sheila Reid as the star’s friend, and Julian Ovenden as her lover, escape the absurd over-acting which is the production's style. Monica Dolan’s narrator manages to keep her head above water, just, to tell the unfolding story, but too often the production itself, in the form of another character wandering across the set or a video camera photographing a scene happening elsewhere, literally gets in her way. Van Hove has taken a classic movie filled with fascinating and attractive people and turned it into an unfunny, unlovely melodrama where, by the end, one is thoroughly fed up with all of them.
The Price – Wyndham’s Theatre
Jewish myself, I’m uncomfortable with cartoon Jews. You know, that exaggerated Yiddish accent, that Old Country shuffle, that apologetic but insistent presence that says you come from somewhere else, that you don’t belong. In The Price, Arthur Miller wrote just such a Jew in his ancient antique dealer, Gregory Solomon, and, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I suspect that in the 1960s when The Price was written, there were still immigrant Jews who walked and spoke like this. No more.
Jewish himself, David Suchet has found a way to play him that includes all the necessary tics and identifying characteristics without the Stepin’Fetchit mock-humility that makes the flesh crawl. If David Suchet isn’t the actor of our generation, then I don’t expect ever to see anyone better. The subtlety of his approach to the 90-year old Solomon, the dignity he gives his every action, and the timing of every line, makes this performance memorable. And while Brendan Coyle and Adrian Lukis are fine as the brothers fighting, as we come to understand, not over their parents’ furniture in the stuffed attic, but over the differences between the treatment received by the brother who became a distinguished doctor by abandoning the family, and the policeman who stayed to take care of the parents broken by the Depression.
As with nearly all Miller’s plays, and for me he is the playwright of the 20th century, the Depression assumes an importance of an additional character, so significant was this economic disaster to the people he wrote about and, centrally, to Miller’s own family. The Price is one of the five peerless Miller masterpieces, perhaps the most autobiographical. He wrote in his autoiography, Timebends, about the drastic changes in his family when his prosperous father lost all his money in the Crash, and the policeman’s speech describing the moment when his father had to tell his mother of their financial ruin was lifted directly from his own life.
In common with all truly great plays, The Price is both centrally of its own time and entirely contained within our own. With three strong performances from Coyle and Lukis, and from Sara Stewart as the policeman’s long-suffering wife, the play truly comes to life when Suchet is on stage to lift it beyond the excellent to the sublime.
The American Clock – Old Vic Theatre
It is a pity that The Price, which should be brought to the attention of every would-be playwright, every young actor, every drama student, should open in London in the same week as another Miller play, The American Clock, which although it has none of the same brilliance, being a much more problematic exposition of the Great Depression, is still an Arthur Miller play and, to quote yet another of his plays, “Attention must be paid”.
While the Depression has a substantial role in most of Miller’s plays, The American Clock is where he tells its story from beginning to end, the end, of course, being the looming Second World War which awakened the American economy and solved some of its economic problems by providing war work which gave purpose and jobs to the workers who had languished for 20 years in unemployment and poverty. This is the story told through the experience of one prosperous family brought low through greed and the conviction that the good times will go on forever. When Wall St crashed, only the very few had been prescient enough to realise that nothing lasts forever.
The American Clock is, let’s face it, preachy. The director, Rachel Chavkin, has done the very best that can be done with this difficult play about capitalism and idealism, by turning it into a kind of horror pageant, with a ringmaster pushing the narrative forward. This is Clarke Peters in a remarkably assured and brilliant turn as the only financier who had the sense to sell before everything collapsed. He leads the rest of the characters through the morass of incompetence, despair, and hopelessness that it is now almost impossible to imagine in a country led by Donald Trump. Or is it?
In a move that is intended to demonstrate that all this misery was happening to everybody, some characters are interchangeable, played by several different actors, which makes it somewhat difficult to feel strongly for any of them, even when what’s happening to them is not their fault. She uses music, singing, even dancing, to evoke the period and brings one of the darkest times in recent history to life. This is a brave attempt to bring Miller’s Depression odyssey to the level of The Price and Clarke Peters’ brilliant performance nearly pulls it off.
Waitress – Adelphi Theatre
Set in a diner in small-town America, this show has been a smash hit on Broadway and looks like going the same way here. Why? Dunno. It’s about, yes, a waitress with an abusive husband and a gift for pie-making which she apparently exercises by making all the pies consumed in the diner as well as serving the customers with coffee and pie. In addition to the abusive husband she has two friends who are also waitresses, an abusive boss, and a lover who is her obstetrician. Oh, and she’s pregnant. Is there any point in punching the obvious holes in the plot such as that doctors in the US have the same restrictions about affairs with their patients as they do here or that nobody could possibly hold down a waitress job and bake all the pies that are actually being consumed every day? Or that having spent the entire evening explaining why she can’t leave her husband she proceeds to do so, without explanation, at the end? Or that both her friends, losers in love, both suddenly acquire a love life, one of them marrying a customer who is clearly psychotic, the other falling in love with the abusive boss? No, probably not.
The songs, by Sara Bareilles, who has never written for musical theatre before, are pleasant and forgettable, and the characters implausible. The singing is excellent from the entire cast as you would expect from a major West End musical and the audience on opening night went hysterical at the final curtain. I too wanted to applaud a show where all the ‘creatives’ - writers, director, music director, choreographer, etc – are women, but that’s not a good enough reason because it’s not a good enough show.
Home, I’m Darling – Duke of York’s Theatre
Less remarked on but more rewarding is the all-female team of director, writer, designers and choreographer for Home, I’m Darling, Laura Wade’s fascinating new play about fantasy and what happens when you try to live it.
We’ve all had moments of imagining ourselves living in a different time and place. Show me a little girl who hasn’t thought she was a princess or a boy who didn’t think he was the top goal-scorer for Arsenal. Who hasn’t seen magazine pictures of a glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous and fantasised what it would be like to spend millions on a swimming pool? Who hasn’t seen themselves as a medieval warrior or a 1930s moviestar? Pick your own fantasy. Thing is, we don’t usually act on them.
But in Home, I’m Darling, Judy, in a wonderful comic performance from Katherine Parkinson, has decided to live her fantasy which is to exist entirely in the 1950s. Formerly a hard-driving career woman, she has given up work to be a housewife whose only job is to take care of her husband and home. When she returns from shopping she transfers her purchases into 50s containers. She dresses in brightly coloured crinoline skirts with the huge petticoats I remember so well (a real nuisance when you’re getting on a bus) and stiletto heels even in the house which she has decorated with the knick-knacks, cocktail cabinets, and furniture which some of us were quite glad to get away from. She even makes her poor husband wear those terrible short-sleeved shirts beloved from too many 1950s movies. His old-fashioned look is having a deleterious effect on his chances of promotion at work and he’s getting a bit too fond of his very up-to-date sexy millennial boss. And without Judy’s income, there’s just not enough money to support the new lifestyle. Judy’s mum, a old hippy well played by Susan Brown, does her best to explain to her obsessed daughter that she can’t go backwards for long without falling over but Judy’s picture of the 50s model wife with no household help and no modern conveniences is too strongly felt to be overturned. Until, of course, it starts to crack.
Home, I’m Darling is a funny, clever play with a serious intent. The overt sexism of the 50s that most women didn’t even notice at the time is brought into sharp relief when compared with the values of 2019. The assumptions about housekeeping and motherhood are funny now, seen with our eyes, but real women tried and failed every day to keep up with the entirely false images of home and family that bombarded us from every advertisement, hoarding, and magazine. Books such as The Feminine Mystique, which debunked this vision of womanhood, began to appear, we got rid of those ridiculous petticoats and stilettos, and modern life began. It wasn’t easy.
The Son – Kiln Theatre
The third in Florian Zeller’s trilogy of plays about dysfunctional families has now opened in a flexible translation by Christopher Hampton. It’s not an easy evening, as it deals with a severely disturbed teenager and the efforts by his parents to offset the damage to him, and to them, of his mental illness. Anybody who has ever had to live with a dearly loved relative with depression and/or anxiety will recognise the hopelessness, coupled with the hope, of such a situation. This boy has separated parents, a mother who is inadequate to deal with her own pain, a father who has moved onto a new partner, and a baby half-brother.
The play begins with the mother confessing to her estranged husband that she simply can’t cope, a scene that ends with the father agreeing to take over custodial care. The rest of the play is about what happens when he does, the tantrums (from both father and child), the resentment, the terror of an out of control teenager, and the hunt for solutions.
A scenery-chewing performance from John Light as the father is brave while young Laurie Kynaston as the son mines every scrap of desperation and menace that Zeller has written into the play without descending into hysteria. For anyone familiar with the situation, the ending is inevitable and tragic. Some kids grow out of their teenage years without visible damage. Some get through it with considerable professional help, some have parents who learn to cope. And some don’t.
The Twilight Zone – Almeida West End at Ambassadors Theatre
The Almeida has finally found a vehicle for their very odd writer, Anna Washburn. Well, probably Ms Washburn isn’t odd, I don’t know her personally, but after two very odd plays, Mr Burns and the recent Shipwreck, both of which mixed fantasy and horror, she’s done the adaptation for The Twilight Zone, a stage adaptation of a phenomenally successful television show familiar to anyone who watched American television in the 50s and 60s. These were half-hour dramas, introduced by Rod Serling, which were creepy but not enough to frighten the kids at bedtime, of unexplained events and weird people, and things that happened when they shouldn’t. Ms Washburn’s stage version, which is an adaptation of original stories from the shows, works well as does Richard Jones’ constantly moving direction. A big cast, playing multiple roles, succeeds in entertaining and surprising us with a succession of situations, characters, lighting, costumes, and magic illusions, including a running gag with a cigarette, that amounts to a fun evening. Well done, Ms Washburn.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.