Garrick Theatre, London Until September 21, 1hr 40mins
Ripped from headlines, this is a play about a monstrous, fat, pig-ugly Hollywood film producer who assaults an actress. It’s fictional, but every single punter will be thinking of one man.
The play has been condemned – before it opened! – as being a story no male playwright should get to tell. But it is hardly a surprise that the bad boy of American drama, David Mamet, has been drawn to it.
This is a fictional, dark, farcical companion piece to his Hollywood play Speed-The-Plow, seen at The Old Vic in 2008 and co-starring the now unmentionable Kevin Spacey.
John Malkovich is chillingly vile as Barney Fein perpetrates a cruel sex crime. Only his complicit fixer (an unflappable Doon Mackichan) seems to know that Fein’s downfall awaits
This play – directed by the author – puts John Malkovich centre stage, thrillingly back in the West End after nearly 30 years. It opens with a classic Mamet scene, with Barney Fein, our brute movie mogul, viciously abusing some hack writer’s lame screenplay.
The humiliated scribe flounces, hurling an insult at the producer’s Jewishness. Fein retorts: ‘I’m now going to cry all the way to the heliport.’
Film is money. Fein will do anything – bribery, corruption, blackmail – to get Oscars. He even gives his vegetative mother pep drugs so she can be wheeled out as the nominal owner of his felonious film company.
Fein is a darker comedy cousin of the showman Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks film The Producers and Fein’s bent doctor (Teddy Kempner, above) is a mere cartoon
In a way, Fein is a darker comedy cousin of the shyster showman Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks film The Producers.
The laughter, though, freezes in the throat when he interviews an intelligent actress – superbly played by Ioanna Kimbook – promising to turn her into the ‘Korean Audrey Hepburn’.
Malkovich is wheedling, self-pitying and chillingly vile as Fein perpetrates a cruel sex crime. Of the cast, Fein’s bent doctor (Teddy Kempner) and the office gofer (Alexander Arnold) are mere cartoons.
The laughter freezes in the throat when Fein interviews an intelligent actress – superbly played by Ioanna Kimbook – promising to turn her into the ‘Korean Audrey Hepburn’
Only his long-suffering but complicit fixer (an unflappable Doon Mackichan) seems to know that Fein’s downfall awaits.
One can’t see a macho writer like Mamet ever currying favour with the #MeToo lobby. But this is merciless in skewering the cynical criminality at the heart of Hollywood.
As the apex predator in the tinsel jungle, John Malkovich is skin-crawlingly magnificent. I was absolutely riveted to my seat.
Royal & Derngate, Northampton 2hrs 25mins
How does an Argentinian man commit suicide? He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps off.
That’s a joke told by Cardinal Bergoglio, who is summoned to Rome by Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict is known as ‘God’s rottweiler’ – exhausted, humourless, scholarly and a German.
He controversially wants to resign in favour of the reluctant younger Argentinian (the current Pope Francis), a populist who likes football, dirty jokes and riding shotgun in mini-vans.
Anthony McCarten’s play is a Vatican-based tango between these two antagonistic men, superbly played by Anton Lesser, as the acidulous Benedict, and Nicholas Woodeson
Anthony McCarten’s play is a Vatican-based tango between these two antagonistic men, superbly played by Anton Lesser, as the acidulous Benedict, and Nicholas Woodeson as his earthier opposite.
Occasionally the script clunks: ‘I may be Pope but my fingers are not infallible,’ says Benedict at the piano. But this is a compassionate, intelligent study (directed by James Dacre, and being turned into a Netflix film) of the loneliness of the papacy, enlivened by two superb actors.
Gielgud Theatre, London Until July 20, 2hrs 15mins
You’ll count your blessings after seeing this – it’s the story of one of the grimmest towns in the US: Reading, Pennsylvania.
Lynn Nottage’s play is set in 2000, mostly in a bar. The local steelworks is brutally laying folks off, thanks to globalisation and corporate greed. Women workers in dungarees knock back the booze. You can smell the armpits and beer.
Martha Plimpton dominates the action as the hard-boiled Tracey, whose friendship with her black workmate Cynthia (the equally good Clare Perkins) is horribly curdled when the latter is promoted to supervisor.
Martha Plimpton dominates the action as Tracey, whose friendship with her black workmate Cynthia (the equally good Clare Perkins, above with Leanne Best) is horribly curdled
As the town’s economy goes south, racism, drugs and despair spread like a virus. For the women’s sons, prison beckons. Tracey’s own fate is particularly shocking.
This extensively researched docudrama (directed by Lynette Linton) has the embedded assumption that Trump’s presidency is a symptom and not a solution. But might things actually improve for towns like Reading?
I’d like a similarly honest update in a few years’ time. Meanwhile, this is terrific stuff.
Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike
Ustinov Studio, Bath Until July 6, 2hrs 30mins
If Chekhov had had access to antidepressants he wouldn’t have written his sad plays. That’s one theory aired by Vanya and Sonia, step-siblings living aimlessly in their rural Pennsylvania home.
It belonged to their dead parents – academics who adored the Russian playwright.
They are visited by their elegant, egomaniac film star sibling Masha, played here by a radiant Janie Dee (Sigourney Weaver in the original New York production). Married five times and with her career on the slide, Masha has a moronic toy boy (Lewis Reeves) she’s desperate to keep away from the young, local wannabe actress (Aysha Kala).
Married five times and with her career on the slide, Masha has a moronic toy boy (Lewis Reeves, above) she’s desperate to keep away from the young, local wannabe actress
Sonia (a heartbreaking Rebecca Lacey) emerges from her chrysalis when she’s the hit of a fancy dress party, impersonating Maggie Smith in the film California Suite.
Mark Hadfield’s gloomy Vanya has his moment with a ranting lament for a pre-mobile age when ‘we licked stamps’. The cleaner (Michelle Asante) adds a note of lunacy with her voodoo magic.
Directed by Walter Bobbie, Christopher Durang’s bickering, broken-wing comedy has a Chekhovian charm that might work, even on those who’ve snoozed off in a Chekhov play.
Chichester Festival Theatre Until Saturday, 2hrs 30mins
It is fitting that Rachael Stirling should be playing a Special Operations Executive agent. Her mother is self-defence expert Emma Peel of The Avengers fame (Dame Diana Rigg) and her father is the nephew of Sir David Stirling, founder of the SAS.
Here she is playing Susan Traherne, whose adventures in occupied France open David Hare’s 1978 play. After successfully dodging the Gestapo, she finds post-war Britain dull, pompous and morally bankrupt.
Rachael Stirling (above with Rupert Young) is playing Susan Traherne, whose adventures in occupied France open David Hare’s 1978 play
She goes mad, calling out the British establishment in the Suez Crisis, making embarrassing scenes and trashing her diplomat husband’s career (Rory Keenan, excellent).
Stirling’s brittle, over- acted portrayal turns her character into an all but insufferable exhibitionist. There’s good work from Anthony Calf as the stuffy British ambassador. But, 40 years on, Hare’s portrayal of the English governing class feels ungenerous and horribly smug.
Theatre Royal, Bath Until July 6, 2hrs 30mins
Britain may not be in as gloomy a place today as it was when Noël Coward’s chilly comedy about death first graced stages: in the aftermath of the Blitz in 1941. Nevertheless, we’re ever in need of some levity, and Richard Eyre’s smooth production provides it – albeit in a show that fails to satisfyingly engage with the play’s disturbing underbelly.
Married couple Charles and Ruth Condomine take part in a seance run by a dotty mystic, Madame Arcati, who accidentally conjures up the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Elvira.
Only Charles can see her or communicate with her, which results in a string of misunderstandings: Ruth interprets his scolding of the waspish Elvira as callous remarks meant for her.
(Coward’s sublimely crafted three-way dialogue here is one of the play’s high points.)
The main draw of this production is Jennifer Saunders who, unsurprisingly, makes a splendid Madame Arcati (above with Geoffrey Streatfeild, Emma Naomi and Lisa Dillon)
Elvira settles into a half-life of haunting her ex-husband, but one of her schemes goes disastrously awry.
The main draw of this production is Jennifer Saunders who, unsurprisingly, makes a splendid Madame Arcati. Wild-haired and swathed in a garishly patterned red smock, she has an uproarious physicality and a braying laugh that is reminiscent of her comedy partner Joanna Lumley’s cackle as Patsy in Ab Fab.
But you never really believe that Madame Arcati trusts her own psychic powers, which dulls the impact of the play’s paranormal shenanigans.
Saunders also has the destabilising effect of glittering more brightly than the rest of the cast but Lisa Dillon (above) does a good job of mapping Ruth’s mounting panic
Saunders also has the destabilising effect of glittering more brightly than the rest of the cast. While Lisa Dillon does a good job of mapping Ruth’s mounting panic, and Geoffrey Streatfeild is commanding as Charles, Rose Wardlaw’s performance as skittish maid Edith is the only one that edges close to Saunders’s in terms of emotional depth.
It’s also hard to sense much attachment between Charles and his spouses, and because of this the play’s discomfiting look at loss and mortality suffers.
Anthony Ward’s colourfully cluttered set brings to life the Condomines’ claustrophobic living room. And the magical effects are slickly done: naff enough to raise the intended titter but with a sufficiently spooky edge.
A good-natured, pacy production that successfully summons all of the play’s silliness – if not the entirety of its darker side.
The Light In The Piazza
Royal Festival Hall, London Until July 5, 2hrs 15mins
Is it an opera, is it a musical? With a score written by Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, and a story of young romance in Fifties Florence, you would think it would be the latter.
But there is melodrama aplenty, credibility-testing plot twists, and this London premiere stars the renowned soprano Renée Fleming. It’s a strange sort of hybrid.
It’s based on a 1960 novel by American Elizabeth Spencer, and was made into a film. The musical version premiered in 2005.
There is melodrama aplenty, credibility-testing plot twists, and this London premiere stars the renowned soprano Renée Fleming (above)
The minimalist Italian setting is conjured up by a pretty square with Vespas tootling by, where an over-protective mother is caught in a dilemma when her daughter Clara (Disney star Dove Cameron) falls in love with a young local.
The problem is that she’s ‘special’ – emotional and mentally vulnerable after being kicked by a pony as a child.
All this is a bit vague, and Dove suggests someone naive rather than damaged, but Fleming makes the most of the parental internal struggle. The star, though, is Rob Houchen, a sweet but ardent Romeo who sings divinely and with charisma.
The score, however, is not blessed with variety. Darker, minor keys predominate, and many songs seem to ramble, like sung-through dialogue.
Daniel Evans’s well-sung production is stylish, with a feel of la dolce vita, but fans of Rodgers’ South Pacific or Carousel might want some tunes they can hum afterwards.
Education, Education, Education
Trafalgar Studios, London Until Saturday, 1hr 15mins
It’s the morning after the Labour landslide in 1997, and a group of teachers at a beleaguered comprehensive are in an optimistic mood, for once.
It doesn’t last long: there are soon rebellious teenagers, problem students and serious conflicts in teaching style to wrangle with.
Not to mention the fallout of an ill-advised hook-up the night before, brought on by jubilation at Labour’s Stephen Twigg ousting Tory MP Michael Portillo – recreated as a very funny parody of that steamy moment in 1997’s blockbuster movie Titanic.
This fringe hit by young company The Wardrobe Ensemble (including Hanora Kamen and Tom Brennan) appears to wallow in Nineties nostalgia
This fringe hit by young company The Wardrobe Ensemble appears to wallow in Nineties nostalgia. The audience coos at any mention of ‘shag bands’, Tamagotchis or cheese strings, and some of the most fun moments feature the company boogying around the stage to the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams and D:Ream.
There’s a physical, sketch comedy-style, controlled chaos to the show, which also suits its school-corridor setting, although it can lack focus at times.
This millennial company does point out how the spending of the Blair years gave way to the painful belt-tightening of austerity, and that Cool Britannia didn’t really last long.
But its analysis doesn’t dig very deep – this remains more of a wistful warning than political barnstorming.