My Night with Reg , Donmar Warehouse – Or Reg’s nights with all his friends

3.5 hearts

It’s been twenty years since My Night with Reg was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre but the drama remains touching and funny in equal measure. The play explores the lives of a group of gay men in the mid-80s as they navigated the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The men meet in Guy’s flat to celebrate his house-warming but subsequent meetings all follow the wake of a friend. Over the course of the evening, it becomes clear that, the never seen Reg, has bedded all his friends save for Guy but that none of them know about the others.

My Night With Reg - Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel), Jonathan Broadbent (Guy) and Julian Ovenden (John)

My Night With Reg – Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel), Jonathan Broadbent (Guy) and Julian Ovenden (John)

The play is universal in tackling such topics as unrequited love, deception, betrayal or the regrets we hold at paths taken and does this in a very touching way. Kevin Elyot’s text is very funny but ultimately wrenching in addressing how these lives were affected by this terrible disease and the destructive nature of its community, continuing with their promiscuous behaviour even when surrounded by the death of so many of their friends.

Notwithstanding the above, this is a gay play in that it deals with a part of history, which affected mostly gay men with the consequences and worries of this deadly disease. But is it also a gay play in that this group of men is strictly different in their behaviour to non-homosexual people (Although I suspect that straight men might envy the sexual license granted in gay relationships). The disparity of the group assembled is one such difference. While some of the men have known each other since university others are working class men such as Bennie, a bus drivers, and Eric, a house painter. It seemed that being gay defined them more than other aspects of their lives and that while they were all very friendly to each other, their promiscuous behaviour led directly to cheating or betraying their friends and lovers.

Directed by Robert Hastie, the cast all give excellent performances. Julian Ovenden, as John, is charming and confident in that way handsome people can be but convincingly distraught to lose his secret lover. Jonathan Broadbent is fantastic as the shy and insecure Guy. The constant, comforting friend whom everyone likes but no one loves. Geoffrey Streatfeild, as Daniel, is the suave extrovert who would rather turn a blind eye than face the truth while never-failing to find the gay joke in any dialogue. Richard Cant, as Bernie, is your boring but loveable aunt Mavis. Matt Bardock is Bennie, the bus driver, who is all working class straightforwardness while, Eric, played by Lewis Reeves, the house painter cum barman, is unknowingly wise and innocent.

The 80s set and costumes by Peter McKintosh beautiful recreates Guy’s carefully manicured drawing-room with period turn table, vinyl collection, Bowie music, Marlboro cigarettes and lots of scotch. The rain, which never quite washes off the sins of the past, was a lovely touch.

Although this is a thoughtful and moving play that makes you laugh while reflecting on loneliness and loss, it never achieved the emotional impact such a subject would warrant nor sought to answer the why behind the deception and lies that abounded within this group of loveable men.

Medea, National theatre – Or when revenge is anything but sweet

4-hearts

Medea which combines both filicide and fratricide is not for the faint hearted. In this production of Euripides’ play, Helen McCrory is the spurned wife who will go to extreme lengths to avenge herself.

Medea - Helen McCrory (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Medea – Helen McCrory (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Ben Power’s adaptation is set in today’s Greece and the dialogue is both precise and extremely moving. The play begins with a warning. The children’s nurse recounts Medea’s tragic situation and her fears of what is to come. For the love of Jason, Medea has killed her brother, helped Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, saved his life and fled her homeland for Corinth. She has married her lover and become a mother. Unfortunately, Jason now wants a new, younger wife, Kreusa, the daughter of Kreon (king of Corinth) and has abandoned Medea and his two sons.

McCrory comes on, unadorned, wearing masculine clothes with eyes smudged and messy hair. Here is a woman who no longer cares how she appears. He anger is all-consuming, it even makes her twitch. She is undone but still proud. This might be a Greek tragedy but it speaks to contemporary audiences as it did to Athenians some 2,500 years ago. Medea is one of the most recognised vengeful woman in literature but surely she speaks for many when she laughs at Jason’s excuses for leaving her for a younger model.

McCrory is spectacular in the role. She is loving to her children, warm to her old friend, Aegeus, desperate at her situation, devious with Kreon but above all angry at having given so much to a man who has left her. Medea articulates her grievances to Jason with such commanding intellect that Jason’s excuses crumble before our very eyes.

Directed by Carrie Cracknell, McCrory’s Medea is all energy and charisma and I wish I could say the same about Danny Sapani. His Jason is truly underwhelming. There doesn’t seem to be any chemistry between the two ex-lovers and he lacks so much emotion that even the death of his children doesn’t bring a single tear to his eyes and that is after his bride has just been killed as well. Michaela Coel, as the nurse, is convincing as the worried nanny who tries to protect the children. Dominic Rowan as Aegeus is the only kind man to Medea and their interaction allows us to see another gentler side to Medea. Unfortunately, Martin Turner, as Creon, lacks some royal panache.

The impressively large chorus of twelve women, however, brings an ethereal mood to the play as they try to warn Medea and protect her from herself. The music, by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, and the accompanying singing from the chorus was beautiful and eerily haunting. I was much less enchanted with the dancing which left me completely perplexed. Just didn’t get it. Maybe someone out there can explain it to me.

The beautiful set, designed by Tom Scutt, depicts a run-down apartment in Greece, opening onto a beautiful and stormy forest. Above is the wedding reception room where Kreusa and Jason will marry. It has the appearance of a slightly tacky modern hotel reception room from the 60s, banister included.

No matter that some of the actors are not at their best, it is McCrory’s play and she is breath-taking to the last. Hers is a tragic tale of breakup and desperation where Medea’s constant and mesmerising dialogue articulates her alternatives, voices her doubts and in the end shows her frighteningly logical madness. Bravo.

The Nether, Royal Court Theatre – Not utopia after all

4-hearts

Jennifer Haley’s new play The Nether takes us into a very believable future world where most people live online.  In the Nether, students attend classes online, people tend virtual gardens (I assume because we have killed all vegetation) and some have even elected to live on life support to remain permanently connected to their avatar to the exclusion of living in the real world and committing to concrete but certainly more messy relationships.

The Nether - Isabella Pappas (Iris) and Stanley Townsend (Sims)

The Nether – Isabella Pappas (Iris) and Stanley Townsend (Sims)

The play alternates between a police interrogation room and an idyllic virtual Victorian world called the Hideaway (a synonym for the Darknet?). The premise seems simple enough. Morris, a female detective, is investigating a particular website and has brought Sims in for questioning. She confronts him with his creation, a seemingly benign Victorian world, but one where visitors can commit murder, mutilation, rape and paedophilia without consequences or repercussions. But is that really the case?

In the Hideway, Sims’ alter ego is Papa, a gentle-looking older man, who prefers one of his creations, a pre-pubescent girl names Iris. Here is a perfect Victorian upper class world (none of Dickens’ characters are about) where you hear the wind in the poplars and where whisky tastes better than in real life. Iris will let you do anything to her as long as you follow the rules and don’t get attached.

Back on earth, Morris confronts Sims but he is adamant that the Hideway is vital for people like him. People, who are sick and have unstoppable urges to do bad things to others.  There, they can enact their fantasies without hurting people in the real world. For Morris, however, the Hideway is a sinister place, which must be pulled down.   To achieve her aims, Morris brings Doyle in for questioning. Doyle is a prestigious science lecturer nearing retirement who is a frequent visitor to the Hideway.  Morris also sends and agent, Woodnut, to the nefarious world to collect information that could lead to Sims’ capitulation. Woodnut becomes our own proxy or avatar for discovering this perfect world.

We think we know where this is going but we are tricked, just as the characters in the Hideway. The play is clever and there are some very ingenious plot twists but I would say that it is above all else a play of ideas not emotions where the characters sometimes feel as though they are only foils for Haley’s arguments. The Nether is nevertheless extremely topical and relevant. Haley focuses on paedophilia and murder to make her point and ingeniously weaves in the all too pervasive human activity to miss use the internet and where trolling and the 21st century advent of catfishing* makes many of us uncomfortable with privacy and human rights when it veers to the abusive.

The play is adroitly directed by Jeremy Herrin, Headlong’s new Artistic Director since September 2013. The Royal Court has, once again, spared no expenses with an absolutely beautifully crafted set by the magical, Es Devlin. The costumes by Christina Cunningham are also particularly worthy of mention. Amanda Hale as Morris is all convictions but ultimately and unexpectedly damaged by events as her character’s initial rigidity is shown to be a defence mechanism. Stanley Townsend as Sims plays the entrepreneur answering society’s needs with bravado while being quite creepy as the ultimate sugar daddy in the Hideway. David Beames as Doyle, portrays the man’s guilty attitude and final undoing very convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Ivanno Jeremiah performance as Woodnut, the investigator in disguise in a virtual world full of people who are not who they seem.   Both Zoe Brough and Isabella Pappas play Iris on different nights. I’m not sure which one I saw on the night I attended but she was very good and gave a complex performance, showing both a young child’s naiveté and her character’s more twisted programming. Though she plays a much younger character I must admit that I was somewhat disturbed by what is required of these young actresses.

The play raises many questions about the consequences of living in a fantasy world where real experiences come to pale in comparison with virtual ones and where computer addiction is a rising problem. How will this affect our society? Do our activities online not mould our actions in the real world? What are we creating when actually, most of us, if one believes the latest poll, actually resents all the time they spend glued to their screen to the exclusion of live interchanges. What will be the end result of this real-time experiment? I was, however, perplexed that in Haley’s futuristic virtual world, the one emotion visitors were not allowed to experience was love. So much for utopia.

* A catfish is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using the internet to hide their true identity, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.

Skylight, Wyndham Theatre – A fantastic night of political and emotional jousting between the sexes

5 hearts

Skylight, first staged at the National in 1995, is being revived for the second time in the West End and it is easy to see why the play has had such endurance and received such accolades (Olivier Award for Best New Play and Tony Award for Best Play).  David Hare takes us into the world of Kyra and Tom and beautifully weaves the political and emotional in such a way that you never feel like you are being preached to.  On the contrary, Hare has inhabited his characters so completely that the audience is swayed this way and that, like pawns in a game of chess.

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight

Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight

Kyra lives in a freezing rundown council flat in North London and teaches children from disadvantage backgrounds in East Ham (oh, the commute!).  In walks Tom, a self-made restaurant entrepreneur whom she has not seen in three years.  Turns out that Kyra used to be part of his family but left suddenly after his wife learned of their six-year love affair.  The first act does suffer slightly from some not so subtle exposition when Kyra and Tom retell how they met and fell in love but one can forgive Hare as the rest of the play is such a joy to watch.  The dialogue between the nouveau riche restaurateur, who can’t understand why anyone would choose to live in such squalid conditions, and the earnest teacher, who wants to save the world one student at a time, is compelling and did I mention very funny.  Hare has managed to draw us into a literal “kitchen sink drama” while giving us a complex collision of beliefs.

Tom is all male entitlement, feeling let down by his dying wife who never gave him the absolution he needed and seeks Kyra’s embrace to cauterise his wounds and feel whole again.  But, as we know, rekindling old relationships is never easy and thus begins a tennis match where volleys are exchanged and old gripes are aired.  Kyra derides Tom’s self-pity and lack of understanding of how the other half (or is that 95% nowadays) lives.  She is unsparing in her attack on those who sneer at teachers, social workers and probation officers who mop up society’s mess.

But if this all sounds very weighty, it is not.  The second act is where Hare’s craftsmanship comes to the fore as the polemic feels completely organic to the story.  Stephen Daldry has brought his magic directorial touch to a fine script where the dialogue between Carey Mulligan’s Kyra and Bill Nighy’s Tom is pitch perfect.

Bill Nighy played the part some 19 years ago and revisits the role with all the energy of a much younger actor.  His disdain for an old piece of Parmesan tells you everything about a man who feels he should be able to buy happiness by purchasing things.  The skylight of the title being the room he built for his dying wife who nevertheless never delivered him from his guilt.  He is restless and full of bravado but ultimately cuts a sad figure as man who just won’t have his cake and eat it too.  The emotional and political distance between the two lovers becomes all too apparent over the course of the evening.  Mulligan as Kyra is completely convincing as a women caught between her staunch beliefs and a visceral attraction to her former lover.  She is passionate without being strident and maintains a half-smile as Tom struts his stuff around her flat.  Matthew Beard plays Tom’s son Ed who visits the flat pre and post Tom.  He is excellent as the teenage boy worried for his father and seeking to understand why Kyra has left their life.  I must make a special mention of the fantastic and ingenious set designed by Bob Crowley where the council estate forms a lit backdrop to Kyra’s flat and where an entire spaghetti sauce is cooked and eaten on stage.

Go and see this beautifully directed and designed production that marries so well passion and politics.