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Three Sisters - Southwark Playhouse

13 April 2014 - 10:26 AM

Saw this last night. The cast is really strong, but the centre struggles to hold.

In Anya Reiss' conception, the three sisters, Masha, Olga and Irina are English girls with not-very-English names, in the Middle East, yearning to return to London after their ambassador father has died. They, and their brother, Andrey, are stuck for money as their father's property there is difficult to sell.

Except that these three girls have a strong work ethic, speak multiple foreign languages, are very beautiful and have a middle to upper-middle class background. There is simply no way on earth these girls can't hop on a plane to London, get jobs teaching English as a foreign language, and live in a council flat while they go out every night to Mahikis to get rich blokes to buy their drinks.

Chekhov's plays rely on the crushing of aspirations by circumstances, so this is a poor set-up, which you really have to NOT think about while you watch the play. I think if Reiss wanted to make these girls English, she really needed to ditch the present, and set this in Jane Austen's England. Then the girls' worries about money and class and marriage and men would make 100 percent sense, and their worlds would close in on them in an utterly believeable way.

The male cast members live in a more convincing reality. Most are soldiers, who lost their self-determination the day they signed up, others are embassy officials, itinerant wanderers doing their government's beckoning, and Masha's husband is a Middle Eastern local who has got his hands full marrying a homesick English girl. That such characters experience ennui and delusion and despair is not at all surprising.

The Young Vic's recent Three Sisters got away with modernising it because they left the Russian setting alone, and a British audience will accept anything we hear about modern Russian lives because we don't really know anything about them.

Like in the Young Vic's version, we get a blast of pop song Karaoke. It was, of course, obligatory for the Young Vic to have a pop song, as Danny Kirrane was in that, and the law-of-Danny-Kirrane is that there must always be always a loud pop anthem to rock out to, whether it be "Boys" at the Soho Theatre, "Jerusalem" at The Royal Court or indeed "Three Sisters" at the Young Vic.

Where the Young Vic utilised Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to emphasise the characters' desperate lack of fulfilment, this production flagrantly betrays Jarvis Cocker's egalitarian anthem, "Common People," intended as a critique of uber-rich Greek girls who try to slum it like "common people," but which here is used to slag off common people, namely Emily Dobb's working class social climber, Natasha.

But all that said, this production has a towering cast, a heartrending cast, who, when you suspend your disbelief, give poignant, prescient, wonderful performances.

Emily Taafe's Masha is the most credible of the sisters, as her ties, to the Middle East, are not to the land or her father's property as much as to the people there. She is married to a local, Kulyagin (not a very Arab or Persian name, I know), played by Tom Ross-Williams as a submissive simpering sap with an Arab accent, once destined to be a great man, but who has failed to realise his every promise. And she fancies Paul McGann's officer soldier, Vershinin, who is married and unattainable, but who speaks of dreams of the future that excite her and frustrate her equally. Taafe is remarkable in her ability to project immense amounts of despair and rage, while reigning it all in tightly, constantly a coiled spring. Her final scenes are desperately moving, a truly noteworthy performance.

Holliday Grainger is like her name, a human holiday, an immensely affable presence who lightens the world of all around her. This effervescent quality is used to perfection as the Chekhovian noose around her character closes. She too becomes torn between two men, the unwanted attention of that Bristolian villain from Broadchurch, Joe Sims' Solyony, and the wanted affection of David Carlyle's Scottish optimist, Tusenbach. Sims festers with banal malevolence as Carlyle glows with cheery hope. As events take their course, Grainger seems to age a decade, and the sense of something beautiful being slowly drowned was overwhelming.

Olivia Hallinan is a dynamic emotionally present actor, as she proved in Hampstead's incredible "Herding Cats" and Trafalgar Studios "Precious Little Talent." With her character, Olga's attachment to her gloomy Middle Eastern future being utterly inexplicable, Hallinan battles back against it with serene authority, sisterly affection and very real tears. I wondered if she was crying about her part.

Paul McGann plays philosopher guru, Vershinin, differently from how William Houston played Vershinin at the Young Vic. Where Houston used his deep seductive voice to hypnotise all into believing that his dreams, of the future being better than today, were prophesy, McGann does the opposite. It is clear that McGann's Vershinin is more despairing, and that he philosophises only to keep his head above water, a mere coping strategy for dealing with life's vicissitudes, a willing delusion. As Vershinin is key to maintaining the tone of the play, this makes for a general tone more grave and sad than that at the Young Vic (at least the tone maintained before the Young Vic director had the cast carry away the set, which was memorable and isolating).

Overall, I really liked this for the acting and for the remnants of Chekhov, but the play is undermined by it's modern setting.

3 and a half stars.

PS: Holliday Grainger had an Eddie the Eagle style epic fail in the Olympic sport of running away from the audience at the end of a play. As I emerged from the theatre, she was to be seen in a fit of giggles, sprinting away down the Southwark Playhouse corridor and around the corner, her fellow cast members far far ahead of her. Definitely a human holiday, that one. :)

London Live To Screen Plays

30 March 2014 - 08:48 AM

Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the new London TV Channel, London Live, just said to the BBC that the Channel will be broadcasting archived plays.

He said they will start by broadcasting Lyric Hammersmith's 2012 production of "Lovesong" some time next week.


26 March 2014 - 08:49 AM

I think Polly Stenham plays have been excellent, from That Face to Tusk Tusk to No Quarter (though I know many disagree about the last).

This one plays from31 May - 2 August at The Shed, and is in priority booking now, with public booking from 8.30am on Friday 28 March.

I mention it, because in the unlikely event the rumour mill proves true, and Billie Piper is in it, it may sell quickly, like "The Effect" did at The Cottesloe a while back.

The One - Soho Theatre

22 February 2014 - 10:04 PM

Steve Martin explained that genuinely funny people speak punch lines with an assuredness that inspires absolute confidence. The audience know they are going to laugh before the line is spoken. If Mark Rylance or Simon Russell Beale have a funny line, you feel the anticipation of a good laugh before they speak it, and you know and thus do laugh louder than if anyone else had the same line. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is that kind of actor. She is hilariously funny delivering a joke.

In Hayfever, Fleabag and Mydidae, Waller-Bridge was flawless delivering laughs.

In Mydidae, directed by Waller-Bridge's DryWrite theatre company partner, a play where two couples in a bathroom verbally flayed each other until violence broke out, Waller-Bridge's humour became an instrument of cruelty, so it was hard in some scenes to know whether to laugh, gasp or cry. However, the play itself was never cruel, as the cruelty sprang from self-hatred and guilt.

But "The One" (written and directed by Vicky Jones) is much crueller than Mydidae, and is more disturbing, as the cruelty in this play has at it's root sociopathy and sensation-seeking.

The central sado-masochistic relationship is between Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and her former English Professor, Harry (played by Rufus Wright, who was David Cameron in The Audience). In fantasy, they see themselves as monsters, and the theme song of their love is "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera, which Harry sings to Jo more than once.

The play is a three hander, and Lu Corfield plays Kerry, who genuinely loves Harry. The question for Harry is "Who is The One for him?" The girl who loves him, or the girl who loves to torture him?

During the course of the play, I went from laughing my head off to being very disturbed. I'm all for healthy sado-masochistic relationships, where power exchange is a mutual expression of love through play acting. But Jo and Harry get off the most when they are genuinely hurting each other, or at least Jo does. This is a seriously unhealthy relationship, and a horrifying critique of selfish sensation-seeking.

I will watch Phoebe Waller-Bridge in anything, but I do hope her projects with Vicky Jones prove not to be all as sadistic and sociopathic as this one, as my laughlines were replaced with a great big frown. Intermittently hilarious, exciting, illuminating and unpleasant. 3 and a half stars.

The Mystae - Hampstead Downstairs

22 February 2014 - 06:52 PM

This is like a rollercoaster ride for young adults, and anyone who has a young adult lurking somewhere inside. For 65 minutes, this production transports you in a way no other show playing in London does. And when it is over, it is as if it never was, as if it was some strange unforgettable dream.

It's quite brilliant, as it operates on many levels, and casts a mesmeric spell.

Key to the success of this production is the best set I have seen in the Hampstead Downstairs space, designed by Georgia Lowe. It is a sea cave, accessed only when the tide is low, and in which the players are trapped overnight. It is dank and dark, there are pools of water in it, and the actors must trudge through water to enter. The light within is conjured by sunlight reflections and a makeshift fire, and varies from dim to very dark. The rumble of the ocean mingles with the drip dripping of water on stones. The cave is primitive, it is ancient, it is a womb awaiting the birth of god-knows-what.

Just as Nick Whitby once trapped Ray Winstone, Adrian Scarborough and Dougray Scott in a tank at the Donmar, here his new play traps two boys and a girl in this cave overnight.

They are here to enact an ancient Greek harvest ritual called the Eleusinian Mysteries, which ritual involved worshipping the Goddess Demeter and taking copious amounts of drugs, as well as enacting little plays and sharing secrets as freemasons do. Ina, Holman and Tre are marking their coming of age before they move on to university and other grown up pursuits. And both boys may or may not have feelings for the girl, Ina.

The play successfully melds a mood of comic adventure with mystery and sustained dread. So too does it consider the value of rituals as well as the value of our modern life itself.

The actors serve the production well, all 3 suggesting complex motives and nuances underlying apparently open characterisations. Beatrice Scirocchi as Ina is tightly wound, fiercely secretive yet the instigator of midnight revels; Alex Griffin-Griffiths as Tre (pronounced Tree) is at once goofy West Country foil, sinister schemer and tender nostalgic; and Adam Buchanon is both a voice of reason and an unstable fantasist, suggesting a boy torn from a fantasy childhood, moulding his mind in readiness for a cruel adult world.

The trips this play takes you on, a journey to a primitive place, a visitation with a primitive religion, a coming of age, as well as a drug addled trip into youthful minds, all run concurrently, and the whole production is quite unique and wonderful. But if you have a creeping scorn for what it is to be young, this one hour play is not for you. 4 and a half stars. :)