The Real Thing ~ Malvern Theatres

The Real Thing stays at Malvern Theatres until Saturday 21 October 2017 before continuing with the UK tour, book tickets here: Malvern Theatres

Star rating: *****

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard is not a piece I was readily familiar with, however the themes and intricacies of the script certainly don’t cover unfamiliar territory.

The opening scene is set in one of Henry’s (Laurence Fox) productions, although that’s not evident until the action moves on from the set to which Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson) and Max (Adam Jackson-Smith) are portraying. Henry is essentially a romantic and we first meet him while he is searching through records for his Dessert Island disc choices. Henry’s taste in music could be described as ‘corny pop’ which his wife, Charlotte is ready to point out to him. The pair have a mutually mocking relationship and they don’t shy away from it when Max and his wife, Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) – who is also an actor, arrive to indulge in a spot of Bucks Fizz. The assumption in the offing when the couple arrive is that Annie and Henry are having an affair. Which of course, they are – it’s predictable from that perspective. However, not so predictable is that Annie and Henry make a life together out of the affair and despite plenty of room for jealousy, what they have is ‘the real thing’.

It’s a fascinating exploration of relationships, not only romantic ones but friendships and the parents/daughter dynamic too. There’s also the recurring undercurrent of politics as Annie supports her controversial jailbird ‘pal’ Brodie (Santino Smith).

The set is contemporary chic and moves smoothly with the action. The simplicity of it allows the dialogue and interaction to take the lead and with a wordsmith such as Stoppard at the helm, I feel that’s necessary.

Laurence Fox is exceptional in the role of Henry, he gives the character an air of vague nonchalance while simultaneously bearing his feelings with raw honesty. His chemistry with Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte is particularly notable and their scenes set the pace for the piece. Johnson embraces the absurdities and quirks of Charlotte and embodies the character completely. I always enjoy her work and this another example of her remarkable talent. Adam Jackson-Smith gives a strong performance as Max, coming into his won when he realises his marriage to Annie is over. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is also a revelation as Annie, a character who could almost be played as a flighty, yet it’s reigned in to allow the journey to unfold steadily. Kit Young is definitely one to watch, he plays Billy, a youthful actor who develops a crush on the leading lady he’s working with – the leading lady being Annie.

Stephen Unwin has worked his magic again and directed a play which challenges, questions and leaves plenty of room for analysis. A fine production of Stoppard’s work which I could watch multiple times and not tire of. Go and see it – there are a few weeks of the tour remaining.

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Spotlight On… Star of All Our Children, Rebecca Johnson

Break A Leg favourite, Rebecca Johnson is currently appearing in All Our Children at Jermyn Street Theatre and she took time out in between shows, to chat about her latest role in the five star rated play. Watch our vlog with her, here:  

All Our Children runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday 3 June 2017. To book tickets to see it, click here:  All Our Children

All Our Children ~ Jermyn Street Theatre

All Our Children runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday 3 June 2017, book tickets here: All Our Children

Star rating: *****

Lucy Speed as Elizabetta.

Stephen Unwin is a name I am familiar with as a Director, and in my experience he’s an incredibly talented Director. His debut play, All Our Children is set in 1941 and throws a spotlight onto the true story of the cruel and senseless murders of disabled children in Nazi Germany. Their deaths were ‘justified’ financially and said to be a means of lessening their parents’ loads, to whom they must have been a burden and a blight. Set in a clinic where the children’s executions were being authorised by a Pediatrician, the story examines morality, ignorance and on many levels, love.

Victor (Colin Tierney) is the doctor charged with the horrendous job of signing the death warrants of supposedly the most severely disabled, ‘no-hopers’ for want of a better phrase. His health is failing him, he’s diagnosed himself with Lung Cancer and he is unable to speak at length without coughing.  His Administrator at the clinic is an obnoxious young man by the name of  Eric (Edward Franklin), he takes delight in exclaiming “Heil Hitler” at every given moment and has not ingratiated himself with the Victor’s faithful, caring Maid, Martha (Rebecca Johnson). Not least because he is having his fun with her seventeen year old daughter and sees no harm in that. Although it appears that Victor has some empathy and moral standing when he is casually ticking off the list of potential victims, he is forced to face the consequences of his actions. The arrival of Elizabetta (Lucy Speed) at the clinic, desperate to have a look at her boy (although she states he should be a young man by now) is the defining moment. With the imminent arrival of Bishop von Galen (David Yelland) on his way to find out if there is any truth in the rumours of these horrendous crimes – it’s enough to drive the Doctor to question his future. After all, he trained to be a Doctor in order to cure the sick.

There was an appropriately chilling atmosphere created by the authentic looking set (designed by Simon Higlett) which set the tone of the play and Jermyn Street’s studio space added extraordinary impetuous.

David Yelland as Bishop von Galen

Colin Tierney is outstanding as Victor, his characterisation is steady and considered for the most part, yet his ability to layer the emotions that the doctor is experiencing is also notable. Edward Franklin makes for a despicable Eric and that is exactly what we are supposed to feel for this slippery, scheming character, his performance is on point throughout. The character has a fascinating back-story which doesn’t justify Eric’s behaviour, but offers some explanation. Lucy Speed is a revelation and extremely heart-wrenching as Elizabetta the grateful and then grieving mother. The character represents all of the mothers (and indeed, fathers) who will have been faced with such horrific news and Speed does it brilliantly, what a force to be reckoned with! David Yelland commands the stage as Bishop von Galen, the two-hander scenes with Tierney were among some of the finest in the piece. Meanwhile Rebecca Johnson possesses the canny ability of underplaying Martha, blending her into the background as the all-seeing eye, then bringing her to the fore with magnificent force, appropriately. Her beautifully emotive performance in the final scene moved me to tears.

Rebecca Johnson as Martha

This piece serves as a stark reminder of the horrors of the holocaust and, certainly in my humble opinion, throws a question mark over humanity. Epilepsy is frequently raised as just one of the conditions that disabled children suffered with (and this remains a common accomplice to disability). What struck a chord with me was that the parents of these severely disabled children must surely have fretted about their offspring succumbing to a number of life-limiting illnesses, yet the eventual cause of their children’s deaths would have been the furthest thought from their mind, unthinkable. One of the main themes of the play is summarised beautifully by Martha when she admits that she is grateful to have her own healthy children but that she has come to love the children in the clinic.

Stephen Unwin is as gifted a Playwright as he is a Director. I cannot remember the last time a piece of theatre moved me to such an extent with its intensity and complexity.

Photo credits: Camilla Greenwell

 

Present Laughter ~ Malvern Theatres

Present Laughter’s tour finishes at Malvern Theatres on Saturday 20th August.

Star Rating *****

Noel Coward’s plays are my self-confessed guilty pleasures, their wit, charm and farcical qualities never fail to bring a smile to my face. The plots are usually predictable, as is most definitely the case with Present Laughter, which arrived in Malvern this week on the final leg of the UK tour it has been embarking upon. Still, this is a five-star production, in my humble opinion and deserves a West End transfer.

Present_Laughter___Samuel_West__Garry_Essendine__Daisy_Boulton__Daphne_Stillington____Photo_credit_Nobby_Clark____r06_
Samuel West and Daisy Boulton as Garry and Daphne

Garry Essendine (Samuel West) is a bumptious, self-obsessed performer (Coward is in fact taking the Michael out of himself with this role), he has a bevy of beauties at his beck and call who all claim to have lost their latch key. Whatever happens in the mad-cap world of the glory hunter, he’s not satisfied and perpetually lonely. His secretary, Monica (Phyllis Logan) is used to the comings and goings of young ladies and responds to her boss in a no-nonsense and sarcastic manner, which he undoubtedly deserves. Loyal to the last, though, she is quite taken aback by the arrival of the manic Roland Moule (Patrick Walshe McBride) and takes on an almost Joyce Grenfell style quality when he is let loose in his idol’s office. With young Daphne Stillington (Daisy Boulton) and Joanna Lyppiatt (Zoe Boyle) who is married to Garry’s Producer, Henry (Toby Longworth) both making their intentions abundantly clear, Essendine’s life is already farcical enough. Add his ex-wife, Liz (Rebecca Johnson) to the fray, whom he has never divorced from and who continues to have control over his career, at least, and there’s a recipe for disaster. Did I mention that among his household staff there is a mad Scandinavian Housekeeper, Miss Erikson (Sally Tatum) who doesn’t appear to do much around the place other than ‘bum’ cigarettes!

Phyllis Logan 1
Phyllis Logan plays Monica

Not a weak link is present among the cast and there are solid performances throughout. With Samuel West and Phyllis Logan being the instantly recognisable names among the throng, I anticipated a certain standard from them. Phyllis Logan shines on stage as much as she does on-screen. Yes, she is vastly experienced, but let us not forget she has had a lengthy break from treading the boards. She plays comedy and deadpan brilliantly and convinced me that she still has a few tricks up her sleeve where her ability to take on completely different roles, is concerned. Her facial expressions, alone speak volumes, and that is a skill, particularly putting that across in a large auditorium. Samuel West gives a show-stopping performance in the leading role, he is a tour de force. It seems that when you think he’s given the role all he can give it, he takes it up another notch, an inspiration to watch. Taking the star names out of the equation, I felt that the show belonged to Rebecca Johnson, Daisy Boulton and Patrick Walshe McBride. They all connected perfectly with their characters, Johnson was a superb match for West, bringing the right mixture of assertiveness and heart to Liz. Boulton was outstanding as the smitten Daphne, simpering and silly in equal measure. Walshe McBride is a name I will be looking out for in the future, he brings a Frank Spencer meets Basil Fawlty meets Little Britain element to the role of Roland and I felt that he played him as the least predictable of Garry’s ‘fan club’. Sally Tatum’s comic timing as Miss Erikson did not go unnoticed, either, it was spot on and imaginative.

This is a seamless production performed on a spectacular set and not to be missed, definitely one of my must-sees of 2016. Book your tickets here to catch it in Malvern: http://www.malvern-theatres.co.uk.

 

 

Spotlight On… Present Laughter Star, Rebecca Johnson

Present Laughter is a touring show stopping at:

Richmond Theatre – 1st – 6th August 2016

Theatre Royal, Brighton – 8th – 13th August 2016

Malvern Theatres – 15th – 21st August 2016

Rebecca Johnson is an actress who’s work I was already familiar with, having seen her last Christmas as Mrs Darling in Wendy and Peter Pan at the RSC in Stratford. I rated her performance, then, and she has continued to impress me now that she is starring as Liz Essendine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. I chatted to Rebecca about her role in the play, her experience on tour so far and who inspires her as a performer.

Thank you for talking to Break A Leg, Rebecca, tell me about Present Laughter and the character that you play.

What can I tell you about Present Laughter? It was written in 1939 and couldn’t be performed because of the outbreak of the Second World War. I’ve previously done other Noel Coward plays which include, This Happy Breed, The Vortex, both with Stephen Unwin who is the Director for Present Laughter. I love working with Stephen and I also worked on A Day In The Death of Joe Egg which he directed, that was on at Liverpool Playhouse and Rose Theatre in Kingston.

What I particularly like about Present Laughter is that there are more female parts than male parts, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s a very happy company to work with, too, wherever we’ve toured to there’s usually a company outing planned.

My character, Liz Essendine is Garry’s wife, they’re no longer together, she upped and left him years ago but they’ve never got divorced. There was obviously quite a romantic ruction in the past, probably an affair that caused them to go their separate ways. Although professionally they’re still very, very close, she’s a writer herself and writes stuff that could be a vehicle for his career. She’s a very no-nonsense sort of character and I’ve taken a leaf out of her book, she tells it like it is, she’s quite unemotional about stuff. There’s an edginess to her that I like and she really schemes in the play, she is instrumental in having Joanna locked in the ‘slut cupboard’ as we’ve called it, Stephen (Unwin) christened it the slut cupboard! The way that she arranges for Joanna to be hidden in there and pretends that she’s at her flat is great, Liz is a schemer and a fixer.

Did you find that the way you played her changed as you went through the rehearsal process?

For a while I found it difficult to ‘find’ her and decipher how she might be different from Monica (played by Phyllis Logan). Although it’s funny because sometimes your first instinct is right and then you go around the houses and take various notes and read different things, but ultimately come back to where you started.

When you went to drama school, what were your ambitions?

When I was first at drama school my ambitions were to play all of the female juvenile leads in Shakespeare plays. I’ve played most of them, but not Juliet or Cordelia.

 

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Rebecca as Liz Essendine with estranged husband, Garry (Samuel West)

Who inspires you as a performer and who inspired you to go into acting?

Lots of people inspire me, I would have to say Dame Judi Dench. I saw her on stage in Absolute Hell which starred in with David Horovitch who played my dad in Just William. The way that she had the meltdown in that play to ‘absolute hell’ it was breath-taking, her range is remarkable. Also Dame Maggie Smith is an inspiration to me.

I’ve also been inspired by lower brow stuff like the Carry On films and looked up to actresses such as Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims. I also liked Molly Sugden in Are You Being Served.

Are there any characters that you have a particular ambition to play, now?

I’d like to do more new writing, I’ve done a bit, I’d like to be there at the beginning, I did that with Coram Boy at the National Theatre. I was involved in work shops where we improvised and one of my lines was used in the final script.

I’d also really love to focus on comedy, I think Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval must be due a revival by now!

What would you say to encourage potential audience members to come and see the play?

If you want 2 1/2 hours of entertainment, laughter, come along and see it. It’s not without its sardonic humour, but ultimately it’s a very funny comedy and might just beat the post-Brexit blues!

Thanks to Rebecca for a smashing interview, I highly recommend that you watch this amazingly talented lady on stage in Present Laughter, and in anything else for that matter!

Photo credits: Theatre Royal, Bath

Wendy and Peter Pan ~ RSC, Stratford

Wendy _ Peter Pan production photos_ 2015_2015_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_179189Wendy _ Peter Pan production photos_ 2015_2015_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_179294

Atmospheric before the play itself had begun, Wendy and Peter Pan at the RSC in Stratford has to be one of the most stunningly effective and pristinely performed pieces I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, this year.

Knowledge of the tale was not necessarily required, as Ella Hickson’s eloquent writing tells a thorough story. Perfectly cast with Mariah Gale and Rhys Rusbatch in the title roles and RSC Associate Artist Darrell D’Silva as Hook.

The scene was set in the beautifully ornate nursery where the interaction between the four Darling children (with Sam Clemmett as Tom, James Corrigan as John and Jordan Metcalfe as Michael completing the line up with their sister) opened the production in spectacular style. Completing the family unit were Rebecca Johnson and Patrick Toomey as their parents. The picture window provided a magical backdrop for Peter Pan’s dramatic entrance, aided and abetted by his many shadows who displayed precise choreographed movement.

The set moved to accommodate the journey that the children ultimately took with Pan, the alternation was so spot on it was hardly noticeable. Neverland was the stuff that dreams are made of, the lost boys were a zany mixed bag of personalities who complemented each other superbly. Then there’s the tremendous performance put in by Charlotte Mills a rather bawdy but thoroughly loveable Tink!

Peter Pan’s den emerged delightfully from beneath the stage, this theatre’s stage lends itself to this degree of technicality and it made such an impact. The visual effects, including flying and fights between pirates and lost boys which exuded sheer energy. Notable about Rusbatch’s performance was the exuberance he maintained throughout, in stark contrast to the dark yet comedic character that D’Silva out across as Hook.

The pirates in Hook’s gang were all excellent as individuals as well as a gaggle, David Langham played Knock Bone Jones and portrayed hilarious stark contrast to star of ITV’s Benidorm’s Adam Gillen who played a disillusioned Martin. Of course the pirate ship was a joy to behold and the crowing glory.

The RSC have a Christmas show to be proud of, heart-warming, heart-breaking and incredibly touching while sustaining an edge of wonder throughout.

It’s on until 31st January, for details and to book tickets, follow this link: https://www.rsc.org.uk/wendy-and-peter-pan/tickets/

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