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As thrillers go, the ensuing plot of ANNA has some drive but nothing sounds remotely period

ANNA

Dorfman stage, National Theatre, London            Until Jun 15, 1hr 5mins

Rating:

I’ve often thought it a good idea to introduce the Donald Sinden award for actor audibility. The theatre these days is as bad as the telly. The late Sir Donald once told me that, back in his early days in rep, if you couldn’t be clearly heard in the ‘gods’, you got a formal letter of warning from the management. 

Better, he reckoned, to boom than go without the job, the fags and the beer.

That audibility imperative may vanish for good if this audience headphones business catches on. For Anna, attached to your seat is a comfy pair of cans through which ‘binaural sound’, a sort of audio 3D, is pumped. 

The set is an East German apartment in Berlin in 1968. The actors perform behind a glass screen, like communist goldfish

The set is an East German apartment in Berlin in 1968. The actors perform behind a glass screen, like communist goldfish

You can hear a pin drop at your side and a door slam 50 yards off. I almost had a heart attack when footsteps suddenly came up behind me in the gloom. The idea is that we are not watching a play but listening in.

The set is an East German apartment in Berlin in 1968. The actors perform behind a glass screen, like communist goldfish. We watch young Hans (Paul Bazely) and Anna get ready for a party to celebrate his promotion. 

Colleagues arrive, as does poor Elena from downstairs, whose husband has been whisked away by the Stasi secret police.

The party is increasingly fraught, and there’s a cheese- on-sticks hedgehog to go with the drinks. Anna – neurotically played by Phoebe Fox – is a bag of nerves

The party is increasingly fraught, and there’s a cheese- on-sticks hedgehog to go with the drinks. Anna – neurotically played by Phoebe Fox – is a bag of nerves

The party is increasingly fraught, and there’s a cheese- on-sticks hedgehog to go with the drinks. Anna – neurotically played by Phoebe Fox – is a bag of nerves. When Hans’s boss, Christian Neumann, arrives, she goes white and throws up. 

You can hear her being sick in the loo in full surround sound! Is it the cheese hedgehog?

No, it turns out that Neumann (Max Bennett) is the man who shopped her mum to the invading Soviet soldiers in 1945, who then raped and killed her. He’s blond, like the creepy Nazi in Where Eagles Dare, with all the fake charm of Donald Tusk.

The props are in period, the sounds (by Ben and Max Ringham) spookily real, but the script is written in cloth-eared modern English (Pictured above, Dwane Walcott)

The props are in period, the sounds (by Ben and Max Ringham) spookily real, but the script is written in cloth-eared modern English (Pictured above, Dwane Walcott)

As thrillers go, the ensuing plot has some drive. But the young author Ella Hickson (fierce, privileged and achingly Left-wing) clearly knows nothing about East Germany, except what she’s gleaned from the 2006 film The Lives Of Others, a genuine German masterpiece from which she pinches a chilling joke.

The props are in period, the sounds (by Ben and Max Ringham) spookily real, but the script is written in cloth-eared modern English. For example, Hans raises a glass and says: ‘We’re going to do a toast.’

Nothing sounds remotely in period, and coincidences pile up implausibly. The one-hour running time is the show’s (almost) saving grace, along with the great Diana Quick as an elderly neighbour.

This felt to me like a very average radio thriller, gussied up with an air of pretension and horrid nibbles.

 

Orpheus Descending

Menier Chocolate Factory, London                        Until Jul 6, 2hrs 40mins

Rating:

One of Tennessee Williams’s most sweaty melodramas, Orpheus Descending – drawing on the myth of the doomed troubadour – is swollen with its own poetry and symbolism. 

It’s an uneven, intense play, often repetitive in its imagery, which dulls its rather mysterious powers.

But although it may not be one of Williams’s finest, it continues to be a draw thanks to a meaty central part for a female lead (Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have previously had a go).

American actor Seth Numrich is too easy-going, too bland really to set hearts pounding as the ‘wild’ interloper with his guitar and snakeskin jacket

American actor Seth Numrich is too easy-going, too bland really to set hearts pounding as the ‘wild’ interloper with his guitar and snakeskin jacket

Tamara Harvey’s production – by the Menier and Theatr Clwyd, where she is artistic director – brews up the right thick atmosphere of menace for this story of forbidden passions in a strait-laced Southern town, where neighbourly pettiness can at any moment harden into dangerous prejudice. 

But it isn’t quite enough to make this strange play really work on the heartstrings.

Leading an impressive cast here is Hattie Morahan, who – as ever – gives a standout, layered performance. She plays Lady, a woman stuck in a loveless marriage, her tough shell gradually prised open by Valentine, a handsome young wastrel who has come looking for work, swearing he’s thrown off his ‘corrupt’ ways.

But American actor Seth Numrich – obviously a Williams fan, having also starred in Sweet Bird Of Youth opposite Kim Cattrall and in The Glass Menagerie, both in Britain – is too easy-going, too bland really to set hearts pounding as the ‘wild’ interloper with his guitar and snakeskin jacket. 

Jemima Rooper does well, however, with the tricky part of the raddled outcast Carol, another contrast to the strictly buttoned-up townsfolk.

The play’s dry-goods store is sparsely evoked in Jonathan Fensom’s dark, wooden set. And the decision to have the one black character, a watchful ‘conjure man’ or witch doctor, read aloud the stage directions is canny, adding some theatrical heft to an otherwise uncomfortably tokenistic role.

Holly Williams

 

The Provoked Wife

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon                                      Until Sep 7, 3hrs

Rating:

John Vanbrugh’s 1697 Restoration comedy has an inky darkness under its frills and wigs. It’s driven by a convoluted plot of schemes and ‘frolics’ – usually to woo women, or to shame them – and a nasty abusive relationship. 

Sir John Brute (Restoration playwrights were rarely subtle in naming characters) is a dyspeptic drunkard who drives his wife to take a lover – the adoring, devoted Constant (Rufus Hound). 

Alexandra Gilbreath is marvellous as Lady Brute, husky and lusty, eyes widening and swivelling with exasperation or ardour. As her husband, Jonathan Slinger is viciously acerbic and very funny, although we laugh at him, not with him.

Caroline Quentin is enjoyable to watch as Lady Fancyfull, with her character’s ego as puffed-up as her cupcake of a frock, but it feels an old-fashioned, ungenerous reading of the part

Caroline Quentin is enjoyable to watch as Lady Fancyfull, with her character’s ego as puffed-up as her cupcake of a frock, but it feels an old-fashioned, ungenerous reading of the part

Sadly, the same can’t be said of Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull, mocked for her vanity, vulgarity – and age. Quentin is enjoyable to watch, with her character’s ego as puffed-up as her cupcake of a frock, but it feels an old-fashioned, ungenerous reading of the part.

Phillip Breen’s production serves up sparkling sparring and steamy subtext but doesn’t gloss the nasty bits of the battle of the sexes. A scene where Brute attempts to rape his wife is repulsive, as it ought to be. 

But although it’s all set at a scurrying pace, at three hours, the play ultimately outstays its welcome.

Holly Williams   

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