Theatre Review – The Antipodes by Annie Baker (Off-Broadway, New York)

 

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I was very much looking forward to seeing Annie Baker’s latest play off-Broadway during my recent New York trip for two reasons. One being that due to life getting in the way, I’d missed the London runs of two of her previous plays and the other being the fact that one of my favourite actors, Josh Charles, was a member of the cast!

Those familiar with Annie Baker’s work will know that her plays tend to be rather abstract and The Antipodes is no exception, being a play that leaves you thinking about it after you leave and I was pleased to see it twice in order to digest it properly.

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The cast of The Antipodes. Photo source: Joan Marcus

Set entirely in a conference room in an unspecified location in the States, this one act play is a story about telling stories, as we watch a group of writers trying to come up with the next great story; in this scenario for, perhaps, a new television show (although even this isn’t certain from Baker’s text). Over the 115 minutes, they share experiences from their lives, random stories they’ve heard from others, or random facts they’ve read online, all with the goal of finding a story that their boss, Sandy, likes. Just as long as it isn’t dwarves, elves or trolls.

This play won’t appeal to everyone (particularly those who need a clear plot when they go to the theatre) and I imagine those in the script-writing business will connect with it more than the rest of us, but I really enjoyed and was fascinated by its quirkiness. It makes you question how we communicate with one another and how it requires far more work to get right than we may realise (feeding in to the difficulties in communication, I loved the scene in which they try miserably to teleconference with the powers that be!). You learnt more than you might think about the nine individuals in the room by hearing their stories, but also by watching their reactions to the stories told by others. There were those who were happy to share even their most intimate stories, while others struggled to be quite so open, as you observe their various personalities as their never-ending brainstorming session stretches from days to months.

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Josh Charles & Phillip James Brannon. Photo source: Joan Marcus

There is also a lot of humour to be found in The Antipodes (although I sensed, at times, some members of my audience were laughing because others were, rather than because they themselves found it funny). It was the range of humorous moments that I liked, as Baker has written moments that are obviously funny, but also moments that are more subtle in this respect, as well as moments that are so bizarre, you cannot help but laugh.

I loved how Baker and director Lila Neugebauer achieved the passage of time during the play, with scenes bleeding in to the next, giving the play the feel that it is in a time all its own, crucial in a play in which how we think about time is a key discussion point (vertical? horizontal? a spiral?). There were also some time passing markers that seemed to creep up on me – for one, I have no idea where the group’s various takeaway containers kept appearing from!

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Brian Miskell & Emily Cass McDonnell. Photo source: Joan Marcus

The cast here are a fantastic team, who together bring so much depth to the material. Will Patton’s boss is a man of few words and who often makes his point by saying nothing at all. I’m not in the writing industry, but from the laughter around me, I sense that this portrayal is one very recognisable to those who are! The cast are all excellent, from Josh Charles’ more confident Dave, to Emily Cass McDonnell’s performance as the sole female voice in this writers’ room (a striking comment on sexism in the industry I assume).

However, one of the highlights for me has to be Nicole Rodenburg’s portrayal of Sandy’s personal assistant Sarah. Constantly in and out of the conference room, she is our link to the outside world and is a constant source of comedy, from her long, drawn-out way of speaking, to her multiple costume changes (I lost count, which only adds to your disorientation of how much time has passed), to her contributions to the discussions in the room itself. The scene in which she recalls a story from her childhood, which has a Brothers Grimm-like quality, in a serious, deadpan manner, before getting back to the matter of lunch orders is truly brilliant.

You only have until Saturday to see this play at the Signature Theatre and I’d definitely say it’s worth the effort. As I’ve already mentioned, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, being a bit too weird for some (I admit the more tribal scene towards the end was perhaps too weird for me), but if you are someone who loves strong acting and hearing stories, from the mundane to the fantastical, then do try and pick up a ticket.

The Antipodes continues at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Theatre (480, West 42nd Street) until this Saturday 11th June 2017. Although sold out, $40 rush tickets are sold each morning and as there is no admittance once it starts, it’s definitely worth seeing if you can fill any vacant seats just before curtain up, by joining the waitlist an hour before. For more information, visit the website here.

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Theatre Review – Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway, New York): Heartbreaking & hopeful, it reminds us we are never alone

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Dear Evan Hansen is undoubtably the show that everyone is talking about in New York and demand to see it is now resulting in people queuing overnight for the chance to get in, just as they still do with Hamilton.

I’ve yet to see Hamilton (I’m waiting for its London arrival), but curiosity had me buying a ticket to see Dear Evan Hansen during my recent NYC theatre trip, especially with its much-praised original cast. Was the hype justified? Absolutely yes and its success and ability to affect so many people, so profoundly, is something special that doesn’t come around very often.

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Connor (Mike Faist) & Evan (Ben Platt). Photo source: Matthew Murphy

Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a shy, socially awkward seventeen year-old, Evan, who struggles to fit in and seems isolated from the people around him. Evan’s life changes when one day, a fellow teen at his school, Connor, commits suicide and the note of Evan’s he stole from him the day before, suggests to Connor’s grieving parents that their son had a friend they never knew about, one who may be able to help them learn about the son they struggled to connect with. What follows is a truly heart-wrenching journey of a young man, who is caught up in a lie, but who along the way, gives all of the characters, all of us watching and indeed himself a sense of hope and the comforting message that we are never alone, no matter how hopeless life seems. It may sound cheesy, but I promise you that the emotional response you’ll have to this story will be very real indeed.

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Evan (Ben Platt) & Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss). Photo source: Matthew Murphy

So relevant to today’s society is the story and the emotional experiences that the characters experience, that you could easily forget that they are indeed characters. It is an incredibly believable story, coming at a time when, despite the increased amount of ways we have to communicate with each other, so many people feel that they have no voice and are incredibly alone. The show has certainly captured the hearts of a generation of young people, who see themselves in Evan. However, the brilliance of this musical is that it has the ability to connect with all ages. Whether you are a teenager, or in your mid-30s, or older, we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve struggled to keep going, to ask for help, or have been scared that no one is there for us. For this reason and the richness of its characters other than Evan, Dear Evan Hansen connects with everyone.

Steven Levenson (book writer), together with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and its director Michael Greif, have created a brilliantly contemporary show, drawing on the social media world we live in (which is also woven wonderfully in to the set). The characters within it are fully realised individuals. Evan is at its heart, but each one adds to the overall magic of the show and that is strengthened by the superb ensemble that brings them to life.

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The superb cast of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo source: Nathan Johnson

Rachel Bay Jones is wonderful as Evan’s mother, doing her best to raise him alone, while Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson portray Connor’s parents sensitively and with such realism, dealing with their grief in different ways. As Connor’s sister, Laura Dreyfuss has the complex role of a girl trying to reconcile grief with the fact she didn’t really like her brother as a person, while Mike Faist portrays two versions of Connor, the person he was before his death and then who he is in Evan’s imagination, ensuring he remains an important part of the story. The show could have become much too sad and so the inclusion of Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Jared Kleinman (Will Roland) classmates of Evan, is vital as they bring a great amount of humour to the show (especially Jared, with Will Roland’s performance being one of my favourites).

Then of course, there is Ben Platt at its core. He was the reason I wanted to see the show and his performance exceeded all of my expectations. Having been involved with the character of Evan since the workshop stage of this musical, means that he is intrinsically linked with him and as you watch him on stage, you sometimes forget it is a performance. Every nuance of Evan’s character, from his shy awkward mannerisms to the tone of his voice is perfectly crafted and seem to come from deep inside Platt. It’s a heartbreaking, visceral and yet at times funny performance, that truly brings Evan to life before the audience and the sheer force of the emotion he gives on stage took my breath away.

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Ben Platt as Evan Hansen – a performance I will never forget. Photo source: Matthew Murphy

I’m not a big musicals fan and so for me to truly connect with one requires not just a good story and strong characters, but also songs that really resonate with me and Dear Evan Hansen’s soundtrack is one of the few that I can listen to in its entirety. Every song has an emotional truth to it because each one fits the point in the story in which it falls, but also crucially feels natural coming from the character singing it in that moment. They never feel shoe-horned in for the sake of it and move the story forward without losing any of their emotional power. From Ben Platt’s superb opening in “Waving Through a Window”, to the playful fun of “Sincerely, Me”, to the uplifting anthem that is “You Will Be Found” (a song I’ve started playing when I need a pick-me-up), to “So Big/So Small”, it’s a truly beautiful collection of songs and I am not ashamed to admit that I shed tears through almost all of them (and it seemed everyone else in the Music Box Theatre did too).

I cannot recommend Dear Evan Hansen enough and if you are able to see this original cast, then don’t hesitate. I feel very lucky to be seeing it again in October and am so pleased that, in this case, all of the praise and superlatives I’d heard about it were fully justified. It’s a show that will definitely make you cry, but it’s also one that is giving people a sense of togetherness and the hope that everything will be alright, which is surely a message we all need to hear.

Dear Evan Hansen continues to run at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street). There is limited availability for the rest of 2017, but if you can treat yourself to the premium band, those tickets come up last minute, so keep checking Telecharge. A small number of standing room tickets are released each morning at the box office (the queue starts early) and there is also a daily online lottery for $40 rush tickets. For more information, visit the website here.

 

Theatre Review – Come From Away (Broadway, New York): an uplifting story of the good we are all capable of showing to others

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“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”

I recently spent a week in New York, specifically to see as much theatre as possible and one of the shows on my must-see list was Come From Away. I read about the show months ago when it was playing in Washington D.C and had been looking forward to finally seeing it for myself. It was therefore the first show I saw on this trip and was a wonderfully uplifting first night on Broadway.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Come From Away is set on 11th September 2001 and yet, despite all of us being so aware of the terrible events of that day, the story of the people brought to the stage in this new musical are very likely unknown to most of us. Set in Gander, which lies on the northeastern tip of North America, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, we discover that amid the tragedy of 9/11, in this small remote community, the good we are all capable of was shining through, when 38 planes, carrying 6,579 passengers and crew had to land at Gander following the closure of U.S airspace.

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The cast of Come From Away

Personally, I had never thought about the immediate ripple impact of the tragedy for other aircrafts in the sky that morning and I was stunned by how this small community and those of the surrounding area, pulled together to help the stranded passengers and crews, who effectively doubled their population within hours. From providing food, clothing, medicine, shelter and someone to talk to, it’s incredible to see just how much was done to welcome an international group of strangers to their island. Indeed, it carries more resonance at a time when refugees from around the world are facing greater barriers and hostility to settling elsewhere.

Through Come From Away, we see the lives of people thrown together, far away from home and without any of their possessions (bags remained on the planes, as these were all initially viewed as potential bombs), who over the next five days form friendships, relationships and a special bond between themselves, but also with the people of Gander, that continues to thrive to this day; there are reunions and Newfoundland is the only place outside the USA which has steel from the World Trade Centre.

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Sharon Wheatley & Lee Macdougall

 

Writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff interviewed thousands of people and have skilfully woven these stories together to create a musical that provides moments of joy, hilarity and fun, as well as its emotional moments. With so many stories available to them, the small cast of just 12 find themselves switching roles (and dialects) multiple times in order to provide us with a glimpse in to the forms of generosity that took place during those days in September. Whether playing the locals going about their daily lives until everything changed, to the passengers left cut off and unaware of what was happening (remember back then, fewer people had mobiles), to the captain of one of the planes, the strength of this ensemble is a huge asset of the show.

Each actor brings something special it and is likely to portray a character you will remember. There are too many to talk about them all, but I particularly enjoyed Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa’s lovely portrayal of a gay couple, whose relationship is gradually put under strain due to how 9/11 has affected them, Petrina Bromley’s vet, who took it upon herself to ensure that any animals being transported on the planes were cared for and Lee Macdougall and Sharon Wheatley whose characters include American Diane and Brit David, who were on the same plane and through such tragedy find love. There is also Q. Smith’s moving performance of a mother desperately waiting to her news of her son, a firefighter in New York, which felt even more emotional seeing the show in the heart of the city and Jenn Colella’s lovely performance as Captain Beverley Bass, a female pilot trying to comprehend that her beloved planes have been used to create such horror.

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Jenn Colella

Such a story needed to be told with the right balance of entertainment and sensitivity and this is something the creators certainly achieve. There are moments of great humour  intermingled with moments that have you shedding a tear and I particularly loved the smaller moments of human kindness, such as a local man who communicated to a non-English speaking couple not to be afraid through highlighting passages in their bible.

What also struck me about Come From Away was that it’s not your typical musical, which is something I loved about the show. It doesn’t have your typical musical structure. There aren’t show tunes between spoken scenes as such, but a series of stories that happen to be told through moments of spoken verse and singing. I’ve heard some people comment that the show needn’t have been a musical, but I disagree, as it is through the musical element that the emotional depth of these individuals and what they experienced can be truly told. Having the characters sing how they are feeling allows them to express to us emotions that would have not have come across as vividly through just words. It also means we are treated to the talent of the musical’s band, who through drum, fiddle and pipes bring Newfoundland’s signature style of music to life for a wider audience.

I thoroughly enjoyed Come From Away and would recommend it to anyone making a trip to NYC, especially those who perhaps don’t usually like musicals. Having won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical this week, it is also a strong contender in this year’s Tony Awards and I for one think that there is no better time than now, to see a show that reminds us of the goodness in the world and how even in the face of tragedy, people will always come together to give each other strength and love.

Come From Away is currently running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes. For more information and ticket availability, visit its website here. $38 rush tickets are available from the box office every morning.

 

 

Theatre Review – Become immersed in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (New York)

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During my recent trip to NYC, there was one other theatre experience that had been a must for a long time and that was another Punchdrunk adventure!

After enjoying, but being slightly overwhelmed by The Drowned Man, I was excited to experience Sleep No More in New York, which has already been running for over five years. A collaboration between Punchdrunk and Emursive, Sleep No More brings its audience the same unique, immersive experience that those already familiar with Punchdrunk have come to love. It’s taken me some time to write this review, as it’s essential not to give much away!

For the uninitiated, Punchdrunk shows centre around a story which is brought to life around a multi-levelled building by an ensemble of actors, through movement, dance and minimal dialogue in what is called promenade theatre. Once inside the story, the audience members are each given a mask, which must be worn at all times and there is absolutely no talking. You are also encouraged to split up from those you arrive with. This may sound daunting, but it’s absolutely the best way to experience a Punchdrunk show. It is after all a journey; during three hours inside, you wander around and decide what to observe, which actors to perhaps follow and which rooms to explore. Everyone should choose for themselves. Your time within the world created will be greatly improved by doing so.

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My souvenirs from Sleep No More

So as for Sleep No More itself? It’s hard to review in the sense that the magic of the experience is to know very little at the outset and so I am limited in what I can say! You arrive at The Mckittrick Hotel (a converted warehouse building) and on “checking in” at the door, make your way through to the bar.

The show has been devised around Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s better known and bloody stories. However, this is no ordinary Macbeth and indeed it isn’t even the only story that unfolds within the five storey building. My choices over my time at the McKittrick meant I in fact saw very little from the Macbeth side, unlike my friend who saw most of the recognisable moments from that story brought to life!

Being inside such an experience is hard to describe. It’s at times as if you are in someone else’s dream, due to the lack of set course you take, while at the same time being incredibly liberating to simply wander wherever you choose. To reach each new floor involves climbing the stairwells and as you are effectively on your feet for three hours, wear sensible, comfortable shoes! It can also get quite warm inside, so wear layers or light, cool clothing.

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Close observation of the actors by the audience at Sleep No More

I enjoyed Sleep No More much more than The Drowned Man and the key reason for that was my attitude. I was braver in my exploration of the building. I ventured in to dark rooms alone, walked closer to actors and wasn’t afraid to catch their eyes. They are after all reacting to the audience as much as to each other. My open attitude must have been clear, as I did get to experience one of the famous “one on one experiences” in which one actor took me aside, away from the other followers and in to the dark crevice between the walls. It was a unique, surreal and very intimate moment that I won’t forget and drew me further in to the mysterious atmosphere of the show.

More than anything else, the creation of the world will astonish you. The attention to detail in these shows is superb. Each floor is a different environment; you may find yourself both in indoor and outdoor locations, all perfectly brought to life. Every prop is there by design – whether the titles of books you can take off a shelf, the half written letters you can read on tables or the posters and notices on shop pinboards. One tip I will say is, if you find yourself outside the sweet shop – go in, open the jars and sample the goods! The sound/music underscoring the locations is also perfect and the large ensemble of actors work incredibly hard to bring the world to life inches from you.

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The experience begins on arrival at The McKittrick Hotel

The masks and silence also add an air of gothic creepiness to the night. They are unquestionably unnerving and having everyone wear one is so effective. They also make you bolder in my view. There are no places out of bounds here. If you want to sit on the arm of the chair of an actor as they sit there reading something, then you can. The anonymity of the masks allows you a freedom that is like no other theatrical experience and on returning to the outside world at the end of your time, it’ll have you comparing notes with friends and theatregoers as to what you each saw and did for a long time afterwards.

I’d also agree that Sleep No More, like any Punchdrunk show, is something that will inevitably benefit from repeat trips. The more time you spend there, the more you’ll see and the more the pieces of the story will start to come together. Sadly, I only had time for one visit this time, but, if it’s still there on my next trip to NYC, I’ll almost certainly go back. Once you’ve caught the Punchdrunk bug it’s inevitable!

So, if you’re going to, or are in, New York and are looking for a totally unique evening, book a ticket. If you go with others, do split up inside. It’ll mean you have so much more to share afterwards. Finally, be bold. The more you put in to Sleep No More, the more you’ll enjoy it!

Sleep No More continues at The McKittrick Hotel at 530 West 27th Street and is currently booking until 30th December 2016. Tickets are $86.50 (plus booking fee) and try to get the earliest timed slot to maximise your time inside. For more information visit the website here

Theatre Reflections – A final farewell to the RSC’s King & Country at BAM (New York)

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It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this reflection on the final King and Country cycle. Previously I have reviewed all of the individual plays since they began with Richard II in 2013, as well as reflecting on the cycle at the Barbican this January. However, as my recent New York trip was largely scheduled around seeing the last dates of these Histories, it seemed fitting to look back one last time and also comment on the differences, both in my experience and in the performances, when seeing them during the New York run.

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BAM Harvey Theatre (Photo by: E. Kaufman Harvey)

I find it thrilling that despite so many performances under their belts (the final King and Country tally was 505), the company was still trying new things and for anyone who’s sen them a few times it’s a wonderful added extra. It’s also fascinating to experience the plays with an audience who have much less opportunity to see live Shakespeare than we do here in the UK and to see first hand how this affects their reactions to the material.

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Jasper Britton & David Tennant in Richard II (Photo by: Keith Pattison)

From my time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Harvey Theatre, I’d safely say that the largely American audiences loved these productions and having the RSC come to them. In fact there was a buzz that I didn’t feel at the Barbican or to some extent even at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This is perhaps largely due to the RSC in New York being more of an event, seeing as they haven’t been regularly and the audiences were excited to see this famous theatre company bringing Shakespeare overseas. Thinking about it logically, these were the perfect plays to succeed there. The more traditional rather than modern settings and the English history (albeit Shakespeare’s version) seemed, from the people we spoke with, to be exactly what they imagined the Royal Shakespeare Company to be doing.

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Antony Sher, Sam Marks & Alex Hassell in Henry IV (Photo by: Richard Termine)

BAM was an ideal theatre for the plays too. Built in 1904 as the Majestic Theatre, the BAM Harvey Theatre’s auditorium is weathered and has a old-age feel; paint flaked walls and ceilings really added to the sense that a little bit of English history had come back to life in a venue of the past. I also really liked the rake of BAM, with a great view from every seat I had (it’s a bit like the Trafalgar Studios rake for those that know it). This again meant a slightly different viewing experience than I’d had in Stratford-Upon-Avon or London.

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Matthew Needham (centre), Antony Byrne (left), Sean Chapman (right) in Henry IV (Photo by: Richard Termine)

The plays themselves were just a strong as they had been and as far as Henry IV is concerned, this was my favourite time watching it (having seen it once in Stratford in 2014 and then once during each of the two Barbican runs). At a book event earlier in the week, Antony Sher had commented how he felt the US audiences were listening and reacting better to the plays and on experiencing them for myself, I have to agree with him. Lines which I’ve not heard get a reaction before in all four of the plays (but especially Henry IV) found one at BAM. I heard quite a few people there saying how they had read the plays before coming and perhaps we are so used to Shakespeare in the UK that we aren’t as focussed as an audience who has less chance to see them live. In turn, this clearly had an effect on the performances, especially Mr Sher, who seemed happier and more at ease at BAM. Perhaps coming to the end of the run played a part, but you could see that he was enjoying and feeding off the audience reactions.

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Alex Hassell in Henry V (Photo by: Stephanie Berger)

I’m sure it’s no surprise to regular readers that I saw Richard II the most since 2013. I’d been at the first preview in October 2013 and I loved the idea of seeing the very last performance, especially as in my view, this is a production which has only gone from strength to strength over time. It was in Richard II where I picked up on little changes, the most obvious being in my favourite scene – Flint Castle. Having seen David Tennant play the scene with both Oliver Rix and now Sam Marks (as well as Oli and Sam together during the understudy performance), it was wonderful that they were still experimenting even at the end of the run. I saw Richard II twice at BAM and both times, instead of dodging the crown when Richard moves to place it on his head, Sam Marks stayed still and Richard II did indeed crown Aumerle. Once Tennant then removed it with a sigh (it’s Richard’s burden, not his cousin’s) and the second time Marks removed it and with sadness gave it back to Richard. It wasn’t a big change, but it was something subtle and lovely to see played in a slightly different way after all this time.

All the company were on fine form in New York and special mention to Evelyn Miller going on in place of Jennifer Kirby for the final Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. They should all be hugely proud of the King and Country cycle and it was very special to be at the final Henry V to see the 505th and final performance. I’m sure after such a welcome, it won’t be long before the RSC is back in New York and you never know, I may just have to tag along too!

You can purchase the RSC’s King and Country plays on DVD from all the usual stockists. As the DVDs are region free, it’s worth considering buying them from US Amazon where the 4 play set is only $40!

Theatre Review – Blackbird (Broadway, New York)

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Another play I managed to have time to see during my New York theatre holiday was the Broadway premiere of David Harrower’s play. I knew very little beforehand, but was an admirer of the work of both actors.

Set in a break room of a dreary office building, Una (Michelle Williams) has arrived at the workplace of Ray (Jeff Daniels) having not seen him for 15 years. However, this is not an ordinary meeting and it very quickly becomes clear that Ray was a former neighbour and that the two of them had a sexual relationship. What makes this more shocking is that, at the time, Ray was 40 and Una was only 12 years old. After being released from prison, Ray has moved away, changed his name and started again (the offence having been committed before the sex offenders register existed). Tonight however, Una is determined to make him face her and the consequences of his actions.

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Over the course of 80 minutes, we watch as these two damaged people unleash their pent up emotions and the more they do, the more the lines blur regarding how they each view what happened and how they now feel about one another. It proves to be a thought-provoking experience for the audience.

The two actors are very good indeed. Michelle Williams, dressed in a floaty dress, designed to make her seem more childlike, plays Una’s jumble of emotions wonderfully. She is a complex character, whose childhood has understandably affected her whole life. She is like an unstable chemical element, which you expect to explode at any moment. In certain moments she speaks of how many men she’s slept with and yet in others she regresses to more childlike behavior, suggesting someone still on some emotional level trapped in the past. She wants to be in control of this meeting, stalking Ray around the room and seemingly enjoying just how scared he is of her and her unexpected reappearance in his life.

In a role he played during its original Off-Broadway run in 2007, Jeff Daniels takes his lead from her, as Ray struggles to try and explain the past from his perspective. Although I felt myself focusing on Williams’s performance, Daniels convincingly plays a man haunted by Una, who despite his larger frame at times appears small and weak in her presence. It’s not an easy role and it’s a testament to the actor that you sometimes forget that he is a criminal.

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I’ve seen some comments as to whether this was love or abuse. I think this is too simplistic a question. For me, it is perhaps more unclear for Ray and Una from their perspectives than from mine as an audience member. There is clearly a connection between the two of them and they are still drawn to each other, which seems to excite and terrify them in equal measure. However I never questioned the inappropriateness of Ray’s actions. Una was a child, not even a teenager, but a pre-pubescent 12 year-old girl.

He spends a lot of time trying to make clear that he isn’t one of those men, that he doesn’t have those urges towards children and that he didn’t set out to have sex with a child. You are never truly sure if he really believes this or if it’s what he’s been telling himself ever since to move on. This uncertainty about Ray is brought home even more by the play’s powerfully unresolved conclusion, which in one moment made me shudder.

To add to the emotional complexity, as the play continues, you realise that Una’s anger stems more from a feeling of abandonment by Ray than from what he actually did. Ultimately the tragedy for these two people is had they met later in life, things could have been very different.

The strongest section of the play is when Una is reliving their last night together and its aftermath for her. The stage lighting changes gradually growing dimmer as she delves further in to those past events. So powerful is Williams here that you feel as if you are reliving it with her. You can see it in your mind’s eye and feel jolted when brought back to the present. It was hugely effective and the most powerful part of the production.

Certain aspects didn’t work for me. I grew to find the stilted, clipped dialogue of the early part of the play frustrating. Also the throwing around of rubbish by these two people at that point in proceedings didn’t, for me, achieve anything. All the verbal and sometimes physical sparring and outpouring of emotions beforehand were much more interesting.

Blackbird is not a comfortable play to watch by any means and although it didn’t impress me as much as other productions I saw in New York, it was certainly a powerful, thought-provoking and at times disturbing experience.

Blackbird continues its run at the Belasco Theatre (111. West 44th St.) until 11th June 2016. Running-time: 80 minutes approx. (no interval). $32 rush tickets are available each morning at the box office. For more information visit the website.

 

Theatre Review – The Color Purple starring Cynthia Erivo (Broadway, New York)

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The Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of The Color Purple was one of those productions that I tried but failed to see in London in 2013. Thankfully, my recent New York trip provided me with an opportunity to see it during its hugely successful Broadway transfer.

As someone who hasn’t read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (a literary crime I know) or seen the 1985 film version, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this musical. Set in Georgia, beginning in 1909, the story centres on Celie, who we see grow up from a young girl abused by her step-father (resulting in two children who he then takes from her), passed off to a cruel older husband who treats her like his slave, to a strong, independent and confident business woman. Despite everything she endures, Celie remains strong; a woman you deeply admire and care about.

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The phenomenal Cynthia Erivo as Celie

A strong actress was certainly needed to play her and to lead this production. Luckily for me, British actress Cynthia Erivo has travelled with the show to New York and she is absolutely stunning as Celie. An unknown actress to American audiences on her arrival there, she is certainly a force of the Broadway theatre stage now and all the praise she has received for the role over the years is justified.

Erivo conveys every emotion Celie experiences over her life perfectly and by the time she hits the final, powerful notes of her solo song I’m Here, the rapturous reception she received from the audience felt as though it had been building for the last couple of hours! It’s simply one of the finest stage performances I’ve seen and Erivo clearly gives it her heart and soul.

The production also contains some other fantastic performances. Danielle Brooks (from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black) plays Sophia with so much humour and a fire that had my audience cheering her along all the way, with every “Hell no” she uttered. The wife of Harpo, son of Celie’s husband, she is the opposite of the young Celie; she will not be treated as a slave by her husband and is without a doubt the boss of their relationship. Kyle Scatliffe (who impressed me in 2013 in the Young Vic’s The Scottsboro Boys), is wonderful too as Harpo and despite their arguments, the bond of affection they share is never in doubt.

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Jennifer Hudson was still in the cast playing Shug Avery during my visit and she did a fantastic job. Shug is a fascinating character; one who enters as Celie’s husband’s former lover. You don’t expect to like her and yet you do and the love between her and Celie grows. Ultimately it is Shug who helps Celie to forge a new life for herself, free from anyone else’s control. Heather Headley will, I’m sure, continue to make the role shine.

Although not every song is a memorable one, there were some musical numbers within this production that I thoroughly enjoyed and the soundtrack is worth the investment for I’m Here alone. Seeing The Color Purple in America also certainly added to my enjoyment and experience, with the audience’s responses and reactions far greater than I imagine they were in London. Their love of this production was something you could feel in the auditorium.

Powerful, moving, funny and inspiring, The Color Purple was a wonderful night at the theatre and is something not to be missed, particularly for Erivo’s performance, which will be one of the greats to remember.

The Color Purple continues its run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th St.) and is currently booking until 2nd October 2016. $35 rush tickets are available in the morning at the theatre each day. Running-time is 2 hours 20 minutes (including one interval). For more information, visit its website.