Dear Evan Hansen – Noel Coward Theatre
There is no embarrassment as excruciating as that of a teenager. Fortunately, like pain, it is soon forgotten once the experience is past. But think back. Think back to the game which didn’t include you, or the date you got wrong, or the time you said the wrong thing to somebody’s parents, or the time you said the wrong thing to anybody. Remember that moment and you will call back the exact circumstance – the time, the room, what you were wearing and, above all, how you felt. And you will feel it again, even if it was thirty years ago.
There are probably a few young people who sail through their teen years without feeling any of this but I’ve never met any. For the rest of us there are those memories and they never go away. Embarrassment for a teenager is a state of being, where life is an obstacle course of trying, and often failing, to avoid the pitfalls on the way to adulthood. The pitfalls that you never know are there until you fall into them.
Some kids have it worse than others. Evan Hansen is one of those. The nerdy son of a loving but harassed single mother, he has always felt invisible and ignored. He enters High School with no friends but high hopes that the loneliness that has accompanied him all his life, his desperate need to connect, will be solved by meeting new people at his new school. It doesn’t happen. At the suggestion of his therapist, he is reduced to writing a daily letter to himself to try to find something positive in every day.
Connor, a classmate who has been bullying him, steals one of these letters and when he commits suicide he has it in his pocket. His grief-stricken parents, finding the letter, conclude that Evan was Connor’s best friend. And Evan basks in the sudden grateful attention from Connor’s parents and sister, too embarrassed to admit the truth. He lies, and produces more letters and false proof of this non-existent friendship. And the initial misunderstanding, so small, grows and grows.
He becomes a hero to his classmates, the figurehead for a schoolwide appeal for Connor’s imagined love for trees, Connor’s parents offer to pay for his college tuition, Connor’s sister becomes his first girlfriend. Eventually, of course, you know this is all going to unravel and so it does.
This would seem perhaps a fragile structure on which to build the most successful musical since Hamilton but Dear Evan Hansen won 6 Tony Awards and is still running on Broadway. It combines characters you care about, a fine score with memorable songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a script by Steven Levenson which is so carefully modulated that it could stand alone without the score as a serious play about adolescence, and a smashing cast led by young Sam Tutty, fresh out of drama school, as Evan. The conventional wisdom on Broadway was that this show couldn’t transfer without the heartbreakingly fine performance of Ben Platt in the central role and, guess what? Tutty is at least as good in the difficult role of the self-effacing boy who appears to have no personality but whose own artistry shines through, notably in his singing of the sometimes difficult songs. It’s a measure of how intrinsically strong Dear Evan Hansen is that it can support a new British cast led by a young Brit with no experience but an exceptional presence. Sam Tutty, as Evan Hansen, turns embarrassment into an artform and we can all remember when we didn’t.
A Prayer For Wings – Kings Head Theatre
Regular readers of this column know that I have been raving about Ian McKellen’s one-man ramble through his life and career, an endless cornucopia of pleasure for theatre lovers, which he has been performing all over the UK to celebrate his 80th birthday. The evening I saw it for the first time, I happened to be sitting next to its director, McKellen’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator, Sean Matthias, who directed it. The two of them have had many successes over the years in the classics, Shakespeare, Beckett and Pinter revivals, in the West End and on Broadway, one of the most successful actor/director partnerships of our generation. Matthias, of course, has forged an important directorial career in his own right. That evening, he told me that he was planning a production of his own first play at the tiny Kings Head Theatre and he’d like it if I would see it. This is tricky ground for a working critic, particularly if, on seeing a play that has been suggested by its author, who is also a friend, it turns out to be not much good. What does one say?
Fortunately, Mattias’ early play, A Prayer for Wings is very good. Set in his native Wales – Matthias is a Swansea boy – the prayer of the title is the longing for escape from a life of penury and boredom. It is a tale of two women, mother and daughter, living on benefits in a crumbling decommissioned church, driving one another mad. Mother is bedridden with Multiple Sclerosis, daughter Rita is her only carer. Looking after Mam is more than a burden, it is a torture, enforced by the sameness of every day. Rita will do anything to relieve the tedium, have sex with anyone who asks her when she’s out shopping for food and medicine, just for some other human contact which, inevitably makes her feel more isolated.
What gives the play life is Rita’s fantasies. There is nothing particularly exotic about them, she just wants a man to love her, a possibility so remote that she laughs at it herself until, one day, she sees a new boy in the neighbourhood, one who doesn’t know her reputation as the neighbourhood slag, and maybe, just maybe….
In a tiny playing space, surrounded by the audience, Matthias has created an entire world for Mam and Rita. Here are their few possessions, the ubiquitous cups of tea and baked beans, the few bits of utilitarian furniture, the sordid accoutrements of poverty, but here too, amidst the boredom and fury is also love, the unbreakable bonds of mother and child, the interdependence of an alliance against a cruel world. From somewhere, Matthias has found two unknown and extraordinary Welsh actors, Llinos Daniel and Alis Wyn Davies, to play Mam and Rita. They are both exemplary, finding multiple levels of meaning and feeling in their everyday language to convey both their frustration at the deal life has dealt them but also their determination to survive no matter what it throws at them. And after these performances, if Llinos Daniel and Alis Wyn Davies don’t become stars, there is no justice.
Ravens: Spassky vs.Fischer – Hampstead Theatre
I know there are many people who regard the orderliness and elegance of chess to be their metaphor for life but I am not one of them. Many years ago, a boyfriend tried to teach me the rudiments of the game, perhaps only how each of the pieces moved differently, and I glazed over so quickly that he suggested we go to a movie instead. But, sometimes, you don’t have to know about a game/sport/pastime to appreciate a play about it. For instance, I loved Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice, even though I don’t know the first thing about poker. This, alas, wasn’t the case with Ravens, Tom Morton-Smith’s dramatization of the epic battle between the American, Bobby Fischer, and the Russian, Boris Spassky, in 1972. I didn’t care who won, although there was a lot of money at stake and, more importantly, this match was clearly a proxy war in which the Soviet Union and the United States, both countries perched on the edge of a real war, the US in its endless Vietnam conflict and Russia again making a mess of the rest of the world, each had to win. It was rather a shame for both world powers that Spassky didn’t see himself as the standard-bearer for the Communist regime, any more that Bobby Fischer was anybody’s idea of an American Ambassador.
As far as I know, Ravens follows the actual events of the contest which, anybody interested in chess knows, Fischer won. Spassky, who seems a rather pleasant chap, was caught up in the machinations of his handlers and clearly affected by Fisher’s shenanigans. Fischer seems to have been a certified lunatic, spitting in the face of an official, tearing the chairs apart looking for hidden microphones, insisting that the third game of the internationally televised event be held in a back room without cameras, fabricating conspiracies, spouting anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, rampaging out of control and screaming insults and epithets at anyone within reach, and sometimes just to himself, all of which, apparently, he did. Instead of shipping him off to whatever asylum the civilised Reykjavik boasts, the inexperienced organisers of the event did everything possible to accommodate and mollify him.
Robert Emms expends a vast amount of energy in displaying all this, heaven knows how he’s going to keep it up 8 times a week, and is frighteningly convincing as the unhinged Fischer, and Ronan Raftery is a modifying presence in a less showy performance as Spassky. The supporting cast is properly supportive – although why the director has cast two women in aggressive male roles is impossible to guess – but the play belongs to the repulsive Fischer. So energetic is Emms’ performance that when, at one point on press night, he fell flat on his back, most of the audience assumed this was intentional. Only when Raftery and another actor immediately came out of character to tend to him, was it clear that this was a slip, not part of the action. I hope he’s all right.
Cyrano de Bergerac – Playhouse Theatre
This Cyrano is startling. It’s fun to see a play you thought you knew turned upside down by a new vision. Martin Crimp’s new translation maintains the characters and plot of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 verse original, but Jamie Lloyd’s production cheerfully subverts it, in an almost painfully modern rap version, on a bare stage with a few stairs but no props or costumes, recited into microphones by a young cast whose only movement is from one plastic chair to another.
Fortunately, Crimp’s verse is literate and often very funny, following Rostand’s play, itself based on Theophile Gautier’s 1834 true-ish story about the romantic derring-do hero of the Gascogne Cadets in the 17th century, the days of the Three Musketeers, when men still fought duels, Moliere and Corneille were still writing plays and France was ruled by the terrifying Cardinal Richelieu in the name of King Louis X111.
The main reason to see this Cyrano is the brilliant James McAvoy, who, without any help from the usual attributes of costume and sword, armed only with Crimp’s rhymes, and with his own nose, gives us the generous, humorous, intelligent, and flawed Cyrano in all his multi-layers. This is a splendid performance and also includes one extraordinary actor’s trick which got the biggest laugh of the evening. Eben Figueiredo plays Christian, the good-looking but dumb young cadet whose looks woo the beautiful Roxane, with an unmistakeably Black London accent. McAvoy’s Cyrano is equally unmistakeably Scottish until, trying to teach Christian how to make love to Roxane, he produces an imitation of Christian’s Black London which is so perfect that, for a moment, the audience thinks it’s ventriloquism. It’s not, it’s just a moment of actor’s craft. But when he speaks his love for her, in his own soft Scottish, quietly, rap rat-a-tat temporarily abandoned, in the letters he writes for Christian to send her from the battlefront, it is spellbinding, perfectly delivered, not easily forgotten.
Startling, yes. And refreshing, definitely. And worth seeing. But, given the price of theatre tickets these days, it’s a risky venture to turn a West End play into a glorified radio show.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.