Review - Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ruth Wilson takes on one of Henrik Ibsen's most fascinating and polarising characters in Ivo Van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Ibsen's play has been modernised in Patrick Marber's new adaptation. In short, it tells the story of Hedda, the daughter of a deceased army general, who hastily married a man she doesn't care for, and now lives beyond her middle class husband's means, unable to escape the boredom of her pedestrian lifestyle.

Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler
Photo credit - Jan Versweyveld
What is instantly noticeable about this production is its stark set design, which is almost as unbearable for the audience as it is for Hedda herself. In many aspects this production is reminiscent of Lazarus another recent collaboration between director Ivo Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld. In both pieces the action takes place in a large, sparsely furnished room which is slowly dishevelled as the piece goes on. Both pieces also feature large symbolic glass windows. And female characters dressed in silky slip dresses.

To judge it on its own terms, this production of Hedda Gabler is subtly imbued with unmistakable Nordic design, despite its sparseness. Regardless of her disdain for the house she is trapped in, it's modernism suits Hedda, and situates her bookish husband Tesman as an antiquated outsider who invades her life, trailing piles of dusty books and papers behind him. Hedda fights back, armed with a staple gun and limp floral bouquets, but her attempt to aestheticize only results in a mulch of flower petals and stems, which are trodden into the ground as the first act progresses, and are removed before act 2 begins, leaving only a few petals scattered around.

This production's design makes use of some very blatant symbolism, although for the most part it steers clear of heavy handedness. Along with his blank canvas of a set, Jan Versweyveld's lighting design is subdued yet atmospheric, with his use of shadows and silhouettes being particularly interesting. On one occasion, a large window lets in air and light on one side of the room, while on the opposite wall vertical blinds cast long shadows, creating the appearance of a prison cell. On another occasion the conniving Judge Brack threatens Hedda while his silhouette, with legs spread, looms over her small, cowering frame.

Ruth Wilson brings an undertone of grotesqueness to Hedda, seething and scheming nonstop while Kyle Soller's Tesman flutters in her periphery, poring over books all day. The trouble is, while Tesman is usually played as an older gentleman, mithering about money and work all the time, in this production he's a sprightly, sociable young man, who evokes spontaneity and good nature. Wilson is a fierce presence, and plays Hedda with a fantastic physicality, switching from restless slouch to catlike languor as soon as she's alone with a pliable man. But it's hard to elicit a strong emotional response to any of Hedda's struggles when she's so cruel to all those around her. She treats her mousy old school friend Mrs Elvsted with such content, and goes out of her way to seduce her ex-lover Lovberg into resorting back to his old alcoholic habits.

Patrick Marber's new adaptation of Ibsen's text transports the story from the 1890s to the present day, thus removing the historical context which would ordinarily drive Hedda's actions as a woman out of time. Regrettably, as a result of this modernisation the terse relationship between Hedda and the men in her life seems softened and as such her frustrated outburst often come across as brattish rather than rebellious, resulting in a less sympathetic central character.

The only character who really seems to make an impact on Hedda is Judge Brack. As the unnerving judge, Rafe Spall slimes around the stage and attempts to seduce and manipulate Hedda at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the dynamic between Brack and Hedda is taken to the extreme in this production, and his domination of her mind and body via intimidation and humiliation feels gratuitous.

When the lights come up and the actors take their bows there is a feeling of hesitance in the air. Bare feet trample over the odd wilted petal, and a bright scarlet spatter taints the once blanched box of a set. Hedda Gabler has always been a play which polarises its audiences, but on this occasion a sense of shame seems to permeate through the piece, and come to a head at the very end. Hedda's strength is stripped away, her final defiant acts engineered by the men who surround her. Somehow, by transporting her so far away from her original context, Hedda is robbed of the audience's sympathy.

Find out more information by visiting www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/hedda-gabler

Review - La Cage Aux Folles (UK Tour)

Set in a drag nightclub on the French Riviera, La Cage Aux Folles focuses on the chaos which ensues when drag artist Albin and his husband Georges prepare to meet their son Jean-Michel’s fiancĂ©e, and her ultra-conservative parents.
Adrian Zmed and John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles
Photo credit - Pamela Raith
The story of La Cage Aux Folles is entertaining if somewhat predictable. Harvey Fierstein’s book contains a lot of clever wit, undercut by a touching truthfulness which gives the humorous musical a bit of bite. It must be said however that this production of La Cage Aux Folles does feel a little bit too light-hearted at times. The script features several moments of danger and tension but due to the sauntering pace of some scenes several characters act more apathetic than their words suggests at times.

Sporting a broad affected Northern accent John Partridge gives his all as glamorous drag artist Albin, aka Zaza. Despite some slightly awkward audience interaction scenes he commands the stage well and steals the show on multiple occasions. Most notably, his rendition of iconic anthem I Am What I Am, which brings the curtain down on act 1, is a powerful moment both vocally and emotionally, with Partridge showcasing a strong singing voice complete with killer vibrato, which is well suited to Jerry Herman's songs. Alas, as Albin's husband and La Cage Aux Folles's master of ceremonies Georges, American veteran stage and screen actor Adrian Zmed lacks a certain flair and showmanship, and seems a little lost amongst the larger than life personalities he shares the stage with. However, Albin’s fellow entertainers Les Cagelles impress immensely, splitting and high-kicking with boundless energy, each bringing tons of personality to their role. Bill Deamer's choreography really captures the playfulness of the drag numbers, making them a joy to watch throughout. 

In fact, the scenes which take place upon the stage of La Cage Aux Folles itself are definite high points in the show. Set and costume designer Gerry McCann has created a gorgeous, glittering paradise for Albin and company to inhabit. The rich reds and golds which punctuate the production make it seem particularly luxe, while the array of feathers, sequins and baubles make each drag number a real feast for the eyes. 

At its heart, La Cage Aux Folles is about love and acceptance, two universal themes which seem especially relevant given the rocky and somewhat divided nature of the country right now. It's interesting, and in some ways rather sad, to find a musical which deals carefully with a number of social and political issues which ring true today as much as they did when the show first opened on Broadway in 1983. Despite this production’s flaws, it has glitz, pizazz and will leave its audience with their toes tapping.

Find out more about La Cage Aux Folles by visiting www.kenwright.com/microsite/la-cage-aux-folles

Review - The Snowman (Marlowe Theatre)

With Christmas over and done with it seems rather strange to dive back into winter wonderland with The Snowman, but the timeless story is a joy to watch no matter what.

Photo credit - Herbie Knott
The current production of The Snowman, which originated at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, has been enchanting audiences young and old for many years now. Based on Raymond Briggs' beloved children's book, The Snowman takes audiences on a magical adventure filled with dancing woodland animals, a jolly Father Christmas, and an icy Jack Frost!  

The story itself is a quaint one, which could be seen to parallel The Nutcracker in several ways. A young boy builds a snowman which comes to life, and together the pair explore the boy’s own home before heading off to a snowy winter haven, filled with frolicking reindeer and snowpeople from all over the globe. It’s an irresistible tale, which will have its youngest audience members entranced, while older theatregoers will have a hard time not succumbing to the nostalgia it exudes!

Of course, the most anticipated moment of the show is the famous flying scene. There's no denying a sense of awe is elicited when the boy and his snowman lift up into the air, accompanied by the unmistakable vocals of a young Aled Jones singing Howard Blake’s Walking In The Air, now a bonafide Christmas classic!

Unfortunately, the sentimental element does seem to come at a price. This show first opened over 20 years ago, and as such the set design and costumes do appear to lack the kind of vibrancy and sleekness found in more modern children’s theatre productions. It would be nice to see The Snowman given a fresh lick of figurative paint, as in its current form it feels slightly tired.

Although this production’s design does feels dated, the story itself is still fresh and no doubt provides many children with their first introduction to professional dance, which in itself is worth a mention! It is a shame that the sets and costumes feel like they could benefit from a refresh, as the magic of The Snowman is in its spectacle, however, there is still more than enough to keep audiences entertained throughout. 

Review - Ghost the Musical (UK Tour)

When the movie Ghost was released in 1990 it caused a real rumble, broke box office records, won one of its lead actresses an Academy Award, and caused the sales of Unchained Melody to skyrocket too! Eventually, like so many well-loved movies, it was adapted for stage and hit the West End in 2011, before heading off to Broadway to break hearts there too. Now producer Bill Kenwright's reimagined production of the musical is touring the UK, leaving countless watery eyes in its wake. 
Andy Moss as Sam
Photo credit - Matt Martin
Banker Sam and his artist girlfriend Molly are confronted by a mugger one night. When Sam attempts to wrestle a gun from the mugger's hands and ends up getting shot, Molly ends up alone... or so she thinks. It seems Sam has some unfinished business in the world, and with the help of psychic Oda Mae, he sets his mind to concocting revenge upon those who are responsible for his death.  

Unsurprisingly, the heartbreaking story remains as electrifying today as it was 27 years ago, and does a good job of staying true to the original film. In fact, Bruce Joel Rubin who wrote the original screenplay also came on board to write the musical's book and contribute lyrics to the songs by Glen Ballard and Eurythmics' Dave Stewart. Ghost's music is wonderfully moving, especially With You, the hauntingly beautiful ballad sung by a heartbroken Molly as she tries to come to terms with her loss. Thankfully, there are some lighter numbers in the show too, with Oda Mae's introductory song Are You A Believer being particularly entertaining, thanks in no small part to the fantastic performance given by Jacqui Dubois, who steals every scene she appears in as the reluctant medium.

Additionally, Carolyn Maitland and Andy Moss make a sweet couple as Molly and Sam. While Maitland does a lot of the heavy lifting in their duets and showcases her crisp and powerful belt consistently throughout the show, Andy Moss also manages to pack a punch during big numbers such as Rain/Hold On and I Had A Life. The latter is one of the most effectual songs in the show, which allows the lead duo, as well as Sam Ferriday as Sam's conniving friend Carl, to shine, while also laying the groundwork for a high stakes second act. 

Unfortunately while the show is well cast it is slightly let down by serviceable yet slightly soulless sets which feel a bit bare-bones, as well as rather cold and clinical. Several more intimate scenes feel a bit lost amongst such sparse scenery, which is disappointing for a musical which is first and foremost a romance. Even when the full ensemble is on stage it feels as if there is too much unused space on stage. There's no doubt that this production would benefit from a slightly larger ensemble cast, as even the large group numbers feel a little bit lost, although the vocals are strong throughout. Additionally, barring one or two impressive special effects, Sam's ghostly activities are also a little bit underwhelming. His initial transition from living to spectral is a simple yet effective moment which elicits a few gasps here and there, but sadly there is a surprising lack of ghostly activity.   

The cast all give great performances, and it's hard to resist Ghost's tear jerking finale, and ultimately it's the production design and effects that let it down. Some tightening up, a fuller ensemble and the addition of a few more awe inspiring effects could really help to enhance this tour. However, there's no doubt that it is an entertaining evening out as it is, and there is still a lot to enjoy about this musical in terms of songs and characters, especially for those who love the original film!   

Catch Ghost as it tours the UK this year. Visit www.kenwright.com/microsite/ghost-the-musical for more information.

Review - The Twentieth Century Way (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Tom Jacobson’s calculated and intuitive The Twentieth Century Way is unassuming yet intriguing, and jolts to life in its UK premier, under the direction of Marylynne Anderson-Cooper.

James Sindall and Fraser Wall as Warren and Brown
Photo credit - Laura Hyatt
Two actors waiting for an audition engage in a drawn out, high stakes improvisation exercise. The characters that they invent for themselves; police employed ‘vice specialists’ Brown and Warren, embark on a undercover operation to root out homosexual men within the elite of 1914 Long Beach society, by enticing men to engage in blowjobs (also known as ‘the twentieth century way’ owing to their prevalence as a result of increased public cleanliness at the beginning of the twentieth century) in public bathrooms before marking them with a black cross and arresting them for social vagrancy. While inventing and exploring a multitude of different roles, Brown and Warren begin to empathise with their characters, and a harrowing element of gay rights history bubbles to the forefront.

As the improvisation goes on, the pair find themselves inventing more and more new characters, and switch between them at such a pace that it almost becomes impossible to tell where Brown and Warren end and their creations begin. In fact, at points is seems like even they forget, albeit briefly, that their exercise is just a game. The resulting performances are enthralling, with a sustained tenseness permeating the whole piece.

Inescapable tenseness is amplified by Peter Harrison’s evocative lighting, meanwhile Joyce Rose Anne Robustelli’s fine production design, complete with canny suggestive costume elements which help to keep the audience up to speed with the often frantic switching of characters and locations, is simplistic yet aesthetically effective.

Actors Fraser Wall and James Sindall play off each other extraordinarily well, with Wall bringing an absorbing nervous energy to Brown, while Sindall’s stoicism as Warren is interspersed with moments of terseness, adding yet another layer to the piece. As a duo they are exciting to watch, seamlessly switching from one character to another and relying on their canny audience keep up with them. The brisk pace is handled deftly, and clarity is almost always present.  

At times though, The Twentieth Century Way’s gay rights focus is overshadowed by the piece’s framing device, and the overarching exploration of acting as an art form does occasionally derail the characters' fabricated plot at critical moments.

Crucially though, The Twentieth Century Way simmers with riveting tension before delivering a surprising final twist. It rewards its shrewd audience members with a satisfying finale, and despite moments of wittiness, maintains a fitting solemnity throughout.

For more information about this production of The Twentieth Century Way, visit www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/twentieth-century-way