National Theatre at 50 – National Histories with Nancy Carroll & Alex Jennings – 1 October 2013

Photo courtesy of National Theatre website
Photo courtesy of National Theatre website
The first of a series of National Theatre platform events entitled National Histories saw two superb actors; Nancy Carroll and Alex Jennings share their memories of the National Theatre, as part of the venue’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The format for this series of platforms is simple – each actor is asked to consider the same ten questions, which are then shared with the audience during the event. I would note that this event did run out of time so only nine questions seem to have been discussed. 

A strong contender for my favourite actress, Nancy Carroll’s acting career at the National began with Howard Davies’ The Talking Cure in 2003 and since then has seen her take roles in The False Servant, The Voysey Inheritance Man of Mode, The Enchantment, After The Dance and most recently, The Magistrate.

Alex Jennings’s lengthy career with the National Theatre includes Collaborators, The Habit of Art, Present Laughter, The Alchemist, Stuff Happens, His Girl Friday, The Winter’s Tale, The Relapse, Albert Speer, Ghetto, The Recruiting Officer, My Fair Lady (West End) and most recently Cocktail Sticks and Hymn by Alan Bennett, which also transferred to the West End’s Duchess Theatre under the title Untold Stories. 

Question 1 & 2 – What were your first memories of the National Theatre and your first National Theatre production? 

Nancy’s early memories of the theatre are seeing it as a child when her family drove over the bridges of the Thames and being drawn to it. She spoke of wanting to be on the stage from an early age. Alex’s first memories are of the theatre’s early days at the Old Vic, before its own Southbank home was built. 

The first production Nancy saw at the National Theatre was Guys & Dolls, starring Bob Hoskins in 1982. She spoke of the “mesmeric” quality of the production and how before she had mainly seen more commercial theatre. For her, it captured the magic of theatre. Alex was unsure which production had been his first but believes it was during 1972-1973 and was one of Jumpers (with Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg), The Misanthrope or Equus. He spoke fondly of Michael Hordern in Jumpers standing on a tortoise (anyone care to clarify this comment for me?!) and his hero Paul Schofield in Equus. 

Question 3 – Who is/are your unsung heroes of the National Theatre? 

Nancy’s answer was all encompassing, crediting everyone who works there who isn’t an actor! Everyone from the costume department, to crew, stage management, ushers etc were mentioned and described as being “the best of the best” by a very grateful Nancy. With regards to the stage management team she said how important it is for an actor that the people standing with you in the dark before you enter the stage are calm and steady and make you believe you can do it. Alex agreed with Nancy and spoke of stage management’s key role in the rehearsal room where they have to deal with people’s sometimes volatile egos! Alex also spoke of the crucial role played by Linda on the stage door, who has been at the National a long time and makes it feel like a home away from home, as well as the team of dressers, particularly Ralph. 

Question 4 – Which individual performance at the National Theatre has left a lasting impression on you? 

For Nancy there were two – for its seamless ensemble she named Howard Davies’ 1997 production of Chips With Everything and as an individual she chose Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Sir Fopling Flutter in 2007’s The Man of Mode (in which she also starred) and shared with the audience that during every show she used to watch from the wings the scene in which Rory performed a version of a Coldplay song on the piano. 

Alex’s choices were Ralph Richardson (whom he said was a “magician”) in Peter Hall’s production of John Gabriel Borkman at the Old Vic and National Theatre in 1975-1976, which he thought was superb. He also referred to Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in No Man’s Land as very special. 

Question 5 – What was the most fulfilling National Theatre production you have been a part of? 

Each actor gave two productions in their response. For Nancy it was The Voysey Inheritance, which she described as a happy company, in which she played a strong character. She also spoke of the play introducing her to Harley Granville-Barker’s work. Her second production was Thea Sharrock’s 2010 production of After The Dance (also starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Scarborough and John Heffernen). The fact it was one of Rattigan’s lesser known plays meant it was thrilling to see the audience go through the different emotions of the play, believing they knew what to expect from the happy beginning before it turns in to a far darker story by the end of the first Act. The success of the production itself was also a reason given by Nancy, as she referred to the atmosphere in the theatre, knowing the audience was excited to be there and wanted to see it. This again was also a happy company and she spoke of how special it is for an actor when there is a spark of chemistry that works, develops and which helps the whole piece catch fire. I was thrilled she chose this production, as it was my first experience of the National Theatre and remains one my top two favourite theatre experiences, in no small part due to Nancy’s performance. 

Alex’s choices were 2001’s The Winter’s Tale and he spoke of how much he loved the ideas for the staging as well as the wonderful language from Shakespeare. His second choice was, although not at the Southbank building, the 2002 West End transfer of My Fair Lady, for which he took over from Jonathan Pryce in the role of Henry Higgins. His musical theatre debut was he said absolutely terrifying but was a role he could play forever. 

Question 6 – Which production do you most regret missing at the National Theatre? 

Nancy’s regrets included The Loft Season, Ghetto (in which Alex starred and had been brought to life for Nancy by her husband Jo Stone-Fewings telling her about it) and finally anything starring Olivier! Alex’s regret was never seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Olivier. 

Question 7 – Which of your National Theatre costumes would you choose for a fancy dress party? 

Nancy chose her canary yellow dress from The Voysey Experience and Alex chose one of his wonderful costumes from The Relapse (which was green and pink and covered in three-dimensional roses).  Alex firmly believed all the wonderful costumes from the production should be in a museum. 

Question 8 – Where is your secret / special spot in the building? 

Both chose The Quad and spoke fondly of the tradition that has developed for all performers from all three theatres to bang on the walls looking outwards on the first and last night of each production – an experience which they agreed was very special for any actor performing at the National Theatre. 

Question 9 – What would be your fantasy programming for a day at the National Theatre? 

Alex’s morning production would be Noel Coward’s 1964 production of Hayfever, followed by a matinee of Olivier’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and finally Nicholas Hytner’s Carousel in the evening. 

Nancy’s day would start with her first NT production Guys & Dolls, followed by the poignant 1989 production of Hamlet with Ian Charleson in the title role (which he took on to replace Daniel Day-Lewis at a time when he was very ill and near the end of his own life) and ending with Shadow of a Boy from The Loft Season, which starred her husband as a Welsh spaceman! 

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to such wonderful actors share their insights and memories of the National Theatre and would encourage anyone interested in theatre to pop along to one of the other scheduled National Histories events. Details can be found on the National Theatre’s website:



The Light Princess – National Theatre (28 September 2013)

Photo by Jason Bell
Photo by Jason Bell

The much anticipated new musical The Light Princess has finally arrived at the National Theatre in London. As this is a new blog, a new musical seemed to be a good place to start. I should begin by saying that as this production is still in previews, there are likely to be further changes before opening night on 9 October.

Buidling on the story suggested in the 1864 fairy-tale by George Macdonald, The Light Princess tells the tale of two rival warring kingdoms – Sealand, home of the Royal fleet and rulers of the waves and Lagobel, the inland desert kingdom. Each desires something from the other, Sealand’s water resources and Lagobel’s gold, but they are separated by The Wilderness, home to dragons and other beasts.

The story (with book and lyrics by Samuel Adamson), centres around Princess Althea of Lagobel – the Light Princess of the title – who lost her mother as a child and has literally floated through life since to escape her grief, and Prince Digby of Sealand, who has been so weighed down by grief at his own mother’s death, he has been unable to find true happiness. Each also has a strained relationship with their father and the expectations they have for them. The parallels drawn, in fairy-tale tradition it is clear the two are destined to fall in love.

The staging of the show is impressive and clearly a great deal of work has been done. The sets (by talented designer Rae Smith, whose set for This House I adored) are wonderful and a joy to look at, depicting the two kingdoms and the glorious wilderness perfectly (Althea’s tower home and the wilderness stood out for me). The costumes are also fantastic.

Much of the excitement and anticipation for this production was surrounding the involvement of Tori Amos and, as someone unfamiliar in any detail with her work, I was curious as to what to expect. For me, although the music and lyrics are entertaining and enjoyable (Althea in particular has some fantastic lyrics throughout, which are both witty and heartfelt), I didn’t feel that there was a clear flow from piece of music to the next. Also, unlike Tim Minchin’s efforts for Matilda, I didn’t find any of the music or lyrics particularly memorable and thought some refrains were slightly repetitive.

I also thought that, at 2hours 45 minutes, the production is too long and will benefit from being trimmed down during the previews. The use of the talented acrobats/gymnasts in black to lift Althea in to her various floating positions is impressive from a gymnastic perspective. However I did at times find it distracted me from the actual scene and overall I thought the effect worked far better once Rosalie Craig was on wires.

As for the acting itself, the cast do an excellent job, with a strong ensemble (always important for any production) and superb supporting roles in particular by Amy Booth-Steel as Althea’s loyal friend and Kane Oliver Parry as Digby’s brother (whose vocals are both very good indeed). Nick Hendrix, building on each new role since his West End debut last year in What The Butler Saw, does a fantastic job in the role of Digby, proving to be a very strong leading man, both vocally and in terms of acting. The star of the production however is Rosalie Craig as Althea, fresh from her recent role in the Manchester International Festival’s Macbeth. This is an incredibly physical role and often requires her to deliver strong vocals whilst being manoeuvred in to various positions, something she makes seem effortless. Althea’s fighting spirit and sense of rebellious mischief are also brilliantly conveyed. It is certainly a role that Craig is perfect for and will no doubt bring her much deserved acclaim. The direction by Marianne Elliott (whose recent NT successes are War Horse and the glorious The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) and choreography by Steven Hoggett are also very good, in particular the opening scene of Act 2 between Digby and Althea in the woods, which must have required a great deal of work by all involved.

Although personally I was a little disappointed by the music, overall this is a fun, entertaining new production and it’s fantastic to see the National Theatre invest in new work of this kind. I will definitely return once the show has opened to see how it has developed.

The Light Princess continues in previews at the National Theatre until it opens on 9th October.

Photo image of Rosalie Craig by Jason Bell