Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All My Sons at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue

Although this is not Arthur Miller's masterpiece ('Death of Salesman' is better) I can't imagine a more successful revival. A strong cast, Howard Davies'direction and William Dudley's design are all of a very high standard.

The magificent set includes the complete facade of a southern mansion complete with verandah, establishing a 'Gone With Wind' atmosphere. Only the presence of a 'yard' with furniture and picket fence tells you it's no plantation but the home of a successful businessman

A fringe of overhanging boughs occupies the width of the stage front. They sway in the wind and lightning of the first scene, with it's final symbolic crack that fells a tree. It's the most startling opening sequence I've seen. The ensuing drama slowly unfolds to reveal a message about personal actions and public responsibility. It's unfortunately sometimes swamped by mystery, melodrama and extraneous characters.

The action takes place in 1947. David Suchet plays factory-owner Joe Keller, who has prospered from the wartime manufacture of aircraft parts. He lives in comfortable retirement with his wife Kate, poignantly played by Zoe Wanamaker.

Their fighter-pilot son Larry was killed in the war. Kate still believes her son is alive, although he was reported missing three years ago. A family crisis looms as Chris and Ann, Larry's ex-fiancee, played by Jemima Rooper, reveal their plans to marry.

Although presenting a jovial face to his neighbours and to his visiting son Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore) Joe has a shameful secret. He caused the deaths of young men by allowing a batch of defective aircraft parts to leave the factory. Although he was responsible for the decision his partner was blamed and imprisoned.

The play highlights the cost when individual profit is proritised over the common good. Joe's excuse is that it was done 'for his family'; a recall would have meant ruin. The resulting deaths, which may have included that of his own son, remain on his conscience. His deluded wife Kate has carried the secret less well and is treated warily by her family.

Unlike Willie Loman, the common-man hero of 'Death of Salesman', Joe is not a passive victim and dupe of the American system. He is active collaborator signalled by his name. It needs only one letter of the name to be changed to reveal his true nature.

An overlit set and forced bonhomie of the characters creates a growing tension. It makes the audience feel the facade of deceit will crack at any moment, like the tree in the opening sequence. It says much for the powerful acting ability of David Suchet, beautifully supported by the cast, that he is able to make the audience empathise with a character who is so culpably weak. In the final moving scene the audience feels as much for Joe as for his wife.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tangled Wood Tales: Into the Woods at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Going to Regent's Park Theatre gives me an insight into the days when attending plays, and especially operas, was nothing to do with the performances. Then, showing off one's clothes and greeting friends, enjoying the glamour of gilded boxes and velvet curtains was the point.

Like most people I go swaddled against the weather, but there's always a smattering of debs in sandals with swains and picnic baskets. I don't expect to see anyone I know. It's not so much the fairy lights swathing the bar area as the natural setting that gives a sense of occasion - the way the trees sway and birds swoop across the stage or call from the foliage at inappropriate moments. Watching the audience climb giddy heights and improvise sun hats or snuggle into blankets is half the point.

So I didn't mind that Sondheim's musical was a disappointment. The programme tells me that he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, a musical I saw when it was first staged in London and which set the standard, for me at least, for musicals I've seen since. There's a the same cleverness in the lyrics, delivered in recitative style. but none of the power of songs like 'Tonight, Tonight', 'Maria' or 'America'

I'm not keen on adapted fairy tales, although here they are ingeniously woven together to illustrate a single theme: that individual quests are realisable only with the help of others

The first half's entertaining, with archetypes enlivened, such as a greedy Red Riding Hood and two campy Lawrence Llewlwllyn-Bowen lookalike princes. Cinderella, ugly sisters, a spendidly wicked witch and a Rapunzel, Jack and his cow and a baker and wife wanting a baby ring the changes. A boy in school uniform frames the action but his role is obscure.

The costumes and stage design, by Soutra Gilmour very good, as are the cast, with Hannah Waddingham as a charismatic witch.

The second half would hardly matter except they all have to band together to defeat a giant, brilliantly staged as hands and a head appearing from the trees heralded by ground-shaking footsteps. What a good idea to have it 'voiced' by Judi Dench!

The giant, and the scene where Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are cut from the wolf's stomach are the highlights of an otherwise mediocre musical. But even a so-so play here can be as pleasant as a West End hit!