The Gathered Leaves by Andrew Keatley (Park Theatre, Finsbury Park)
Ostensibly conservative (with both small and big Cs) this new play deals with a family gathering of the Penningtons as the clan’s patriarch William prepares to celebrate what illness may ensure is his final birthday. What lifts the drama above this stock conceit is the precise dramaturgy of its set piece moments: an overcooked salmon as three generations wait for a late arrival; an unbearably fraught game of Trivial Pursuit; and the climatic presentation of birthday gifts. Scenarios which most audience members will have experienced themselves, but that also eviscerate the particular secrets, prejudices and alliances behind the mannered structures of the Pennington’s upper-middle class existence.
Beautifully and sensitively played is the relationship between Giles and his brother Samuel. We see them as boys in a 1960s-set prologue and the formation of a fraternal bond that remains as strong in 1997 (the action takes place weeks before Blair’s first landslide as the Conservative party consumes itself over Europe and sleaze). Giles is a father, husband and doctor but his first loyalty is to Samuel whose autism (never over-written or over-acted) makes the unwritten rules of family engagement, difficult at the best of times, to him almost impenetrable. It is the brothers’ relationship that is at the heart of the play and from it emanate the work’s ultimately optimistic themes of love and redemption.
Great Britain (Richard Bean, Haymarket) a brash tale of tabloid sex, betrayal, and excess written in response to the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson enquiry felt somewhat dated. Its satirical targets reflected a former age of the gutter press and Bean’s script lacked the sharp wit that made One Man Two Guvnors such a delight.
The Changeling (Thomas Middleton, Sam Wannamaker Playhouse) continued the Globe’s excellent run of productions of Jacobean and post-Jacobean drama in its new candlelit playhouse. Costume, lighting, and live music combine to create an intimate and atmospheric theatrical experience. There is a lightness of touch in dealing with text that allows moments of emotional intensity and comedy to coexist thus alleviating the anxiety present in many plays of the period that the action we are seeing is simply too macabre to take absolutely seriously. This awareness of the possibility of the ridiculous was particularly prescient in the Playhouse’s staging of Pericles (William Shakespeare) – this most ‘un-Shakespearean’ of plays that, more akin to medieval romance, follows a classical hero through various trials and tribulations before a literal deus ex machina hastens two improbable reunions can be unsatisfying – the verve, pace and physicality of this production ensured it was a pleasing romp.
Outdoors at The Globe The Oresteia (Aeschylus/trans. Rory Mullarkey) was the full Greek experience – a chorus with belligerent English rhythms, bold leading performances and blood, yes lots of blood. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to see London’s other Oresteia, the well received Almeida production, but I gather that whilst that version looked to see Aeschylus in a modern context, Mullarkey’s adaptation for The Globe stage was more interested in foregrounding the otherness of Attic revenge tragedy.
My two visits to Stratford this year took in Oppenheimer (Tom Morton-Smith, Swan) an overlong but not entirely unenjoyable consideration of the eponymous physicist behind the atomic bomb and Volpone (Swan), Ben Jonson’s city comedy of greed and comeuppance. Henry Goodman was superb as Volpone, particularly in the opening sickbed scenes where he feigns mortal illness to entrap a series of grasping legacy hunters. However, he was let down by an underpowered Mosca. The action was transported to a near-future Venice and the text was updated in places to suit – this was most effective in the Scoto of Mantua mountebank performance which took its lead from Jonson’s interest in complete play but fell flat in other places where contemporary references to global warming and iPads felt utterly incongruous.
Three visits to the National Theatre produced mixed results. I loved The Beaux’ Stratagem (George Farquhar, Olivier). This rarely performed Restoration play, somewhere between farce, whodunnit and comedy of manners, was elaborately staged, fast-paced and at times joyfully silly. Staying with Farquhar (for it is his The Recruiting Officer that provides the play-within-the-play) Our Country’s Good (Timberlake Wertenbaker, Olivier) was a solid effort and although the ensemble playing was difficult to fault, offered little especially exciting or involving. Waste (Harley Granville-Barker, Lyttleton) was tough to enjoy. The play struggles to connect with a modern audience because its two central conflicts – disestablishment of the Church of England and abortion – trouble the early 21st century mind far less than the early 20th. With this central moral quandary undermined, you are left with three hours of somewhat turgid self-examination or sub-Downton drawing room scenes which sparse staging and stark lighting did little to improve.
Of course the theatrical event of the year was Benedict Cumberbatch’s much-hyped turn as the Dane. Hamlet (William Shakespeare, Barbican) was the hottest ticket in town and Cumberbatch did not disappoint, delivering an intelligent and youthful Hamlet that found particular interest in the generational conflict between the worldly student and (step)parents concerned with kingship and state. What was most striking was the scale of the Barbican’s Elsinore, truly a vast stage set, and perhaps the first example I have scene of a stage design built with the transmission of the action to cinemas in mind.
Against my usual judgment I ventured to two West End musicals this year. The Phantom of the Opera (Lloyd Webber, Her Majesty’s Theatre) is now an exercise in 80s nostalgia and, to use a vogue word of 2015, rather ‘problematic’ in its dealings with abduction and obsession. However, The Book or Mormon (Stone & Parker, Prince of Wales Theatre) is wonderful in its absolute desire to offend as many people as possible without a care to the consequences. As with South Park and Team America, Trey Stone and Matt Parker’s writing is intelligent enough to forgive AIDS jokes and frog fellatio.
2015 was bookended by Tchaikovsky at the English National Ballet – both Swan Lake (January) and The Nutcracker (December) were, as always, complete pleasures.