Monthly Archives: September 2013

Farragut North – Southwark Playhouse

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“24 hours is a long time in politics.” This biting political drama centres on the lengths to which people will go, just to keep their head above the water in the race to the White House.  This is the UK premiere of Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon, who worked on the Primary campaign for Democrat candidate Howard Dean back in 2004.  The play was the basis for the screenplay of The Ides of March which starred George Clooney and Ryan Gosling.

It’s 6 months to the presidential election – all systems are go as each campaign team rallies behind their respective governors, trying to get ahead in the polls, second guess their rivals and work the journalists to write in their favour to win votes in the upcoming Primaries and Caucuses.  In the midst of this is the self-assured and charismatic Stephen Bellamy (Max Irons, recently seen in the BBC adaptation of The White Queen), sweet talking the press and whipping up support – with his team getting a little on the complacent side, he takes a call from the boss of a rival and agrees to meet him, with no consideration for the repercussions.  Irons is a little quiet in the first scene, but as the tension ramps up, so does his volume.

As the situation rapidly spirals out of control, allegiances within their team start to crumble and everyone is fighting to keep their job and their place in the pecking order whilst maintaining the right image for the press and the public.  It’s their neck on the line, or yours.  If you have to drop them in it, do it.  Trust no one.  The play weaves its ways through the minefield of skeletons in cupboards; each action and revelation, which should be enough to annihilate a career, is manipulated to their advantage by a carefully worded phone call to a cleverly chosen person, shifting the balance of power at every turn.

Tom Duffy (Andrew Whipp) teaches Bellamy a hard lesson in playing the political game.  On the surface a politically experienced man, almost father-like, who appears to offer some cold hard truths about Bellamy’s campaign and a lucrative proposition: “We’ve been sending out phony literature to your precinct captains with incorrect polling station addresses.  On voting day we’ll send out vans to create traffic to stop your voters getting there.  You’ve already lost.  Come and work for me.”.  But in the penultimate scene you realise how smoothly he has laid a trap and invited Bellamy to walk into it; he gives the illusion of being warm and honest, but is unashamedly ruthless.

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But this is a game of strategy and everyone has their gains to make: Ida Horowicz (Rachel Tucker, recently Elphaba in Wicked) is to all intents the beguiling journalist who can make a man feel safe about spilling the beans (and doesn’t she know it), but would step over her own grandmother to get a juicy scoop that could make or break a campaign.  Paul Zara (Shaun Williamson, best known as Barry in Eastendersis the man leading the charge for his governor, planning deals, endorsements, what to drip feed to the press and when; a likeable man when things are going his way, and piously passive-aggressive when someone breaks his trust.

Ben Fowles (Josh O’Connor) is the plucky young junior just starting to cut his teeth on the campaign trail – he is endearing and naive, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  His suggestion of a fresh approach for a speech in Iowa is mercilessly shouted down by Bellamy, but just when you think he has scuttled off with his tail between his legs, the power shifts and he’s able to stroll into the limelight at just the opportune moment.  Molly Pearson (Aysha Kala) is the sultry young intern who has no qualms with sleeping her way to the top.  Confident, sexy and enigmatic, she eventually finds herself out of her depth as the machinations of politics manoeuvre around her.

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This is a play by an American playwright about the American political process.  Unless you are VERY up to speed on your American politics, I strongly recommend getting there early in order to buy a programme for £2.50 and reading it thoroughly from cover to cover in order to understand what’s going on.  There are a lot of names of unseen characters which are thrown about with wild abandon and as these are all fictional people, it requires a lot of listening to catch who’s who in which campaign.  This is a fascinating if slightly terrifying peep into the world behind the glistening smiles and the soaring speeches that punctuate the long road to the White House.  Just think, it all begins again for real in January 2016…

Farragut North is on until 5th October 2013 at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD.  Tickets from http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk  Contains frequent use of strong language.

Boeing Boeing – from page to stage

“Farce is a tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.” – John Mortimer

How very true.  After months of preparation, line learning, swearing, optimistic visual cues, line running and more swearing, we have finally opened ‘Boeing Boeing’ to our paying audiences at The Miller Centre Theatre, Caterham.  Whilst farce is often looked upon as one of the basest forms of humour, it is also one of the most demanding of its actors.  Pace, comic timing, cue-bite, fiendishly similar lines, lightning-fast costume changes and being rock solid on your thread of the story whilst maintaining the illusion that this is a situation hurtling dangerously out of control – all of these are essential.

Many friends outside of my theatre bubble ask ‘how do you learn all those lines?’ often referring to long speeches or pages and pages of dialogue.  In those cases, with relative ease; when you only have yourself and perhaps one other person to rely on, and a clear direction to the conversation, you record the lines, listen to them over and over in much the same way as you’d learn the words to a song.  But farce typically has lots of short, clipped lines, interjections, interruptions, repetition and similarity peppered throughout, especially so when the confusion mounts.  The best way to learn this is sheer brute force with the ‘shopping list’ method:

I went to the shops and I bought an orange.  I went to the shops and I bought an orange and two apples.  I went to the shops and I bought an orange and two apples and 3 pork chops.  etc etc etc.

It’s boring and time consuming, but it works!

We’ve also experienced that horribly, disconcerting point in the last few rehearsals – NO ONE IS LAUGHING ANY MORE.  In the first few weeks, you spend half of your time recovering from fits of the giggles, be it from lines, a carefully timed entrance, a pause, a facial expression – eventually you gain control of yourselves, you get books down and a few more people appear in the rehearsal studio, doubling as a mini-audience: stage manager, props, prompt, wardrobe, production committee, artistic director etc. their laughter buoys you and spurs you on.  But then everyone has to knuckle down and focus on their own tasks.  You are pouring every last inch of yourself into performing, only to have no audible feedback.

The greatest risk is going too far over the top or feeling so demoralised that you don’t give it everything.  I’ve experienced both with this rehearsal process – a few careful tweaks help to sharpen up the little bits that need ‘light and shade’.  It does of course help to have a small rent-a-crowd in for your final dress-rehearsal, partly to reassure you that it is still funny, but also to give you an indication of where an audience might laugh.  It’s a very tricky thing to balance; on one hand you don’t want to deliver a punchline followed by the sort of pause that aches with: “You can laugh now.”, but nor do you want to cut the laughter short!  (I challenge you to find me an actor who doesn’t revel in laughter and applause of their own making – we’re all suckers for it!)

Boeing Boeing had a very successful run in the West end about 6 years ago (which is where I first saw it and first knew that I wanted to play Gretchen one day).  I didn’t see the stint featuring Mark Rylance playing Robert, but our director’s son, being a great fan of Mr Rylance, sent him an email asking if he had any tips.  To our surprise, we actually got a reply:

“Don’t play for laughs; play to terrify the audience about what might happen next.”

This is possibly one of the best pieces of advice for farce that I’ve ever received.  With that in mind, we have stripped back some of the overdoing and instead worked more towards keeping the audiences stress levels up with every almost-catastrophic near-miss that we can manage!  This has been an immensely tough production to learn, rehearse and stage, but also one of great fun and reward.  We’d love to see you in the audience one night.  🙂

Boeing Boeing is at The Miller Centre Theatre, 30 Godstone Road, Caterham, Surrey CR3 6RA until Saturday 21st September.  Tickets can be booked from http://www.millercentretheatre.org

West Side Story (Sadler’s Wells)

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When I think of West Side Story, this is the first image that comes into my head; the iconic choreography of Jerome Robbins which blazed a new trail in musical theatre back in the 1950s.  It transposes the well known Shakespearean tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to the poverty-stricken backstreets of New York and the tit-for-tat gang warfare between the Jets and the Sharks.

There has been a bit of confusion over this production; Sadler’s Wells is a dance theatre first and foremost, so several friends (including the friend I saw it with) had assumed that this was a ballet version.  I can confirm that it is indeed the actual musical, complete with singing, dancing and acting, requiring every ounce of talent from its ‘triple threat’ ensemble cast.

West Side Story is a timeless tale of love across the divide, of bitter rivalry and hatred.  But you very much have to accept this as a musical and block out the news stories of spats over gang territory and disrespect which seem, more often than not, to be fought with knives and guns rather than bare knuckles.  The dancing is clean, precise and effortless – but in being so perfect, it loses a little of that raw, visceral intimidation that you might find out on the mean streets today.  But it is still a breathtaking feat of timing and beauty and what can be achieved by the human body and by several human bodies in exquisite synchronicity.

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The roles of starcrossed lovers Tony and Maria are very demanding, so it comes as no surprise that there are two actors/actresses performing on rotation – tonight I had the privilege of seeing Anthony Festa and Elena Sancho-Pereg.  For Sancho-Pereg, the sublime operatic heights of Tonight, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are delivered with blissful ease and you watch her grow from a naive young girl, through delirious infatuation to a broken woman howling in the street.  Festa makes for a very gentle, warm Tony, perfectly complementing his Maria, without ever upstaging her.  This is a well-worn story with an inevitable tragic ending, which still succeeded in breaking my heart.

But the person who stood out most for me was Penelope Armstead-Williams who plays Anita.  Fiery, seductive and volatile, she leads her ensemble cast through a stunning rendition of America with boundless energy.  But the murder of her beloved Bernardo brings out her bitterness in A Boy Like That and when she is assaulted by the Jets, she is consumed with spite and baying for blood in retribution – a very moving performance.

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West Side Story is on at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebury Avenue, London, WC1R 4TN until 22nd September 2013 before going on tour around the UK until June 2014.  Tickets available from here: http://westsidestorytheshow.co.uk/