The Inheritance – Noel Coward Theatre
The concept is deceptively simple: 15 mainly young men talking about what it’s like to be gay in our time and what it was like to be gay 50 years ago. It isn’t tragic or even particularly sad but it made me weep as I rarely do and never in public. Matthew Lopez’s wonderful play and Stephen Daldry’s wonderful production lay bare the pain of being different in a society that values conformity above all things. Knowing that you are being looked at through the wrong end of the telescope and judged about something as natural to you as breathing must be truly terrible and must infect every part of your life until you can find a community and a purpose which allows you to be whatever you were meant to be. On the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre is that community and that purpose. It is so true and so real that it is almost insulting to call it acting but I’ll risk that by saying that this is some of the best acting of this or any other season.
This community of friends represents the winners. The educated, loved and wanted gay men of our urban society. They have jobs and homes, they have holidays and longterm partnerships, they are writers and businessmen and scientists and actors. They live in a time when they can legally marry or choose not to do so. They are successful. But they want us to know what the real life of gay men is like, the doubt, the opprobrium, the fear. And they want guidance in telling their stories, most unusually from a gay writer of a previous generation of gay writers, one who could never admit his sexuality, the novelist EM Forster, in a remarkable and understated performance by Paul Hilton.
The only false note comes at the end of the play which, by the way, is actually two plays of more than three hours each. I’m not sure whether this was just a weak moment by Stephen Daldry, or whether he owes her a favour or, to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he actually thought this was good casting, but, in his only bad move, he has given Vanessa Redgrave the only female role as the mother of a man who died of AIDs. But by then we’ve seen what theatre at its best can do and that short scene is simply an aberration.
I was living in New York at the height of the AIDs epidemic and as my friends died around me, something in me died too. In fact, coward that I am, I returned to my native England because I couldn’t bear to attend another funeral or put on a brave smile at another bedside. That time is emblazoned on my memory and, although it never goes away completely, the AIDs sequence in The Inheritance brought it back in all its horror. I heard again the voices of my friends and acquaintances and strangers, those wonderful young men who never lived to become the men who represent them on the stage. And I wept.
Wise Children –
The Old Vic
This is the first production of Emma Rice’s new company, also called Wise Children, and it’s a winner. Part circus, part drama, part puppet show, part dance piece, part history, and yet not wholly any of these, it’s Rice’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel about Nora and Dora Chance, vaudeville twins through most of the last century. I should probably say that, unlike Emma Rice, and much of the female half of the human race, I am less than enthralled by the cult of the late Angela Carter. I admire her talents as a writer but have always had a healthy mistrust of whimsy, in which she specialised.
The Chance twins were unacknowledged by their father, a famous actor, and brought up by their grandmother, a hilarious Katy Owen in a pendulous naked fat-suit. The twins appear in a variety of guises from puppet babies to young girls to showgirls to old ladies. Apart from the puppets, there are three Noras, three Doras, several fathers and several uncles. It’s all right, you don’t have to be able to tell them apart, the joke is that they don’t look alike at all and we only know they’re meant to be the same character by their clothes. There are times when the free-flowing imagination of the adaptor and director, Emma Rice, collides with Angela Carter’s flights of fancy and the result sometimes seems less of a feast than a goulash.
But Wise Children is fun. It is deliberately messy, making the most of a large and flexible cast, doubling and tripling roles, exchanging genders with abandon (one Nora and one Dora is a cross-dressing man) and the audience is generous with its acceptance of the sudden shifts in direction, character, plot (plot? what plot?), and location. Vicki Mortimer’s fantastical designs for both sets and costumes are perfect, giving the Chance Sisters a rose-wall-papered caravan for a home which I wanted to move into and some wonderful sartorial quirks.
The music, what hasn’t been specially composed by Ian Ross, is standard classic songs of the middle of the 20th century, carefully chosen no doubt but seeming random, and Etta Murfitt (who was a mainstay of Matthew Bourne’s Adventures in Motion Pictures) is not only the choreographer but also a hilariously tiny Nora Chance who dances very little here but even gets to sing.
Angela Carter fans will love this Wild Children, Angela Carter cult members will probably hate it, and even those of us who are neither will have a very good evening.
I and You – Hampstead Theatre
I had vaguely heard of Lauren Gunderson before I saw I and You but couldn’t remember having ever seen one of her plays. Hardly surprising, as she lives in San Francisco and is part of the febrile and highly active Bay Area theatre scene. Like many theatregoers, I tend to think of American theatre as New York theatre, forgetting the size of the country, its 50 states and its hunger for culture in all its forms. Donald Trump, folks, is NOT America and while a successful Broadway play is the pinnacle for many theatre-makers, that doesn’t mean all. Many fine writers, directors and actors have busy careers making plays all over the United States. Which brings me back to Lauren Gunderson. Shame on me for not knowing, it turns out that she is currently the most produced playwright in America with no fewer than 27 productions last year alone.
The one that Ed Hall has chosen to direct is a blatant, and very welcome, attempt to draw a younger audience into his theatre. There are just two characters, a teenage High School girl who is confined to her bedroom because she is waiting for a liver transplant, and a classmate who comes to work with her on a homework project. In this country it would be unusual for them not to have met before but many American High Schools have thousands of students so when he turns up in her bedroom, having been admitted by her mother, she is irritated but not surprised. He is good with words, she with visuals and they are both very bright indeed.
Coming from the world outside her bedroom, the boy, Anthony, has much to tell her, about school, about friends, about this afternoon’s basketball game, but primarily his task is to interest her in Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself so she will help with the project. Over the course of the hour they spend together they get over their early antipathy, essay the beginning of a friendship, overcoming the awkwardness of boy/girl first meetings to even a possible romance. Eventually, he reads her the poem as they work on the project together. All through this burgeoning relationship the playwright is patiently leading them to a conclusion she has set up from the beginning but which we, as the audience, have no idea is coming. This is very skilful writing indeed because, when it comes, it seems inevitable whereas, in fact, it comes without apparent warning.
Two young actors, Maisie Williams and Zach Wyatt, are tasked with negotiating the path through the playwright’s intentions in the stop/start staccato speech of the young which will be recognisable to every parent (and every teenager). They do so with enormous charm and it is a delightful surprise to read subsequently that they are both making their stage debuts in I and You. I want to see much more of them both and certainly more plays by Lauren Gunderson.
Company– Gielgud Theatre
It happens sometimes, not very often, that I sit in an auditorium and wonder whether my fellow theatregoers are seeing the same performance I am. This time, I was unmoved by the laughter, hollering, applause, and general approval of the new gender-bent version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company from an audience who loved every misbegotten moment.
Company, for anyone who may not have seen it in any previous production, centres on a 35-year old single New Yorker whose friends are worried that marriage may not be on the horizon. In this production by the very talented but occasionally misguided director Marianne Elliott, Bobby has become Bobbie, for no better reason than that women are thought to be in sole and anxious possession of a biological clock. She has clearly not met any men who are equally keen for a family. Company was revolutionary in 1970. Here was a show with a concept but without a plot, more a song cycle than a ‘book’ musical, a series of songs about marriage from characters who ranged from happily married to happily coupled but unmarried, to unhappily married, to much married.
Sondheim, himself the essential New Yorker, single and gay, had written them songs which defined not only their characters but also their unmistakable location. Company is as much a show about New York as it is about relationships. For Bobbie, single, smart and attractive, living alone in the big city makes her part of the first generation for which parents’ home to marital home was not the inevitable first move.
Is Bobby/Bobbie commitment-shy? Has he/she not yet met the ‘right’ person? What is love, anyway and does everybody need to be coupled? These were huge questions in 1970, and not small ones today, but they are no larger for a woman than for a man. This pointless reversal, giving the leading role to Rosalie Craig who sings well but otherwise brings nothing to Bobbie that a Bobby might not, necessitates a number of clumsy amendments to the lyrics, added by Sondheim himself, and the addition of a gay couple.
Company is the most site-specific musical since Oklahoma. It lives and breathes New York. The febrile, fantastic fun of New York, its “crowded streets and dusty parks”, its breathtaking skyscrapers and above all its frantic pace, is all missing here. Bunnie Christie’s hideous all-grey set with its lighted boxes looks like a prison where she clearly intended Manhattan’s cramped living space. The clothes have none of New York’s flair and pizzazz. The mainly British cast does its best. They’re, well, nice and New Yorkers are, well, not. They sing well and their American accents are, for the most part, impeccable, but the production looks and feels as though it’s taking place in Reading on a wet Wednesday instead of in the most exciting and maddening city on earth.
And what of the legendary Patti Lupone who, alone in this production, personifies the New York voice? Her “Ladies Who Lunch” one of the saddest, and funniest, songs Sondheim has ever written, is bawled at full volume with admirable pitch and no emotion, making me desperate to hear again the late great Elaine Stritch.
So what was the rest of the audience so excited about? As they say in Manhattan, beats the hell outa me.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.