The Railway Children – Waterloo Station – Review

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The Railway Children from the classic 1970 film

A Christmas tradition in our house, is to sit down and watch the classic 1970 film version of The Railway Children (number 66 in the British Film Institute’s 100 Greatest British Films). This year we went one better and off we went to see it live at Waterloo Station. The holiday season is one traditionally linked with theatre in various forms, from nativities, pantos, ballets, circus etc. This production fitted perfectly well with the seasonal choice of theatre and was packed with all ages. There’s a brilliant article in this weeks The Stage by John Byrne talking about how this time of the year is so important to theatre and I highly recommend it for further reading.

This production has received rave reviews, heck; even the West End Whingers liked it! So expectations were high, as we walked along the now defunct Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo into the specially constructed theatre built over the railway line. As I’m familiar with the story I was intrigued to see how they would create the world of The Railway Children, having a real railway line has advantages no doubt, but would it act as a hindrance to the play I wondered?

As the cast came out onto the platform and interacted with the audience the atmosphere heightened, I really like it when cast mingle with audiences before or after a performance, I know many say it “ruins the illusion” and perhaps for some productions that’s true, but I feel it certainly helps to connect the actors with the audience, especially in a piece like this with a large number of youngsters present.

A Wonderful Moment of Theatre

Mike Kenny has adapted the book faithfully and the idea of having the Children retelling the tale as adults, acting as their childlike selves was a clever idea that worked well. As did having the characters acknowledge the existence of the audience. This is no “fourth wall” production, but seeing the actors masterfully focus the audience’s attention was wonderful to see. This is no mean feat in a theatre where at times the actor(s) can have their backs to half the audience. The use of trolleys with set running up and down the railway track allowed for a more “in the round” feel to the production, and the crew who physically pushed the set up and down the railway got a well deserved round of applause at the end too!

A highlight and “Unique Selling Point” of this production is the real steam train, the Stirling Single that appears in the production. It makes its entrance as the finale of Act 1 and as one youngster near me said as it chuffed into the theatre “Awesome!” The train added a whole extra dimension and its use in Act 2 was even better, especially when it arrives with carriages too.

The Magnificent Stirling Single - Star of the Show

For me the most memorable scene was the tunnel scene in Act 2, which was a real lesson in how to create atmosphere and creatively present theatre. The thundering train sound effects and use of dry ice whisking down the railway lines is superb and had many of the children (and adults) on the edge of their seats.

The cast gave wonderful performances especially Louisa Clein as Phyllis whose comments and asides got great reactions from the audience and Steven Kynman as Perks who performed this loveable character with considerable charm and skill.

This bit brings tears to my eyes every time!

The story itself is a classic and can sometimes come across as a bit twee and sentimental and while the tear jerking ending gets me every time, this production also emphasised the tragedy and darkness of their lives at suitable times too.

As we all departed this 19th century station back to the Eurostar terminal I was pleased to see a whole new generation captured by the magic of this story and more importantly aware of how magical theatre can be when done this well.

Is Hamlet the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of Theatre? – Hamlet at The National Theatre – Review

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Rory Kinnear and Yorick

I LOVE the National Theatre and everything it stands for and I’m a massive supporter of it. I LOVE Shakespeare, he is a genius in the truest sense of the word, with a highly developed sense of humanity. (I also did rather well in my Shakespeare module at college so that warms me to him too!) I LOVE Nicholas Hytner’s directing skills and have enjoyed his previous work tremendously. So I should have been in for a treat last night as I settled down at the National to see Hamlet.

On reading Hamlet for college I had a feeling that this wasn’t a very good play. It’s overlong, turgid in places and seemed to me to be a tad self-indulgent by the Bard. On re-reading it, I still felt this, and on subsequent readings still have that thought. However, as so many seem to think this is the greatest play of all time, I thought I’d hold off my heretical thoughts until I’d seen it visualised on stage, as so often it’s easy to miss something when reading a play text.

Last nights production was “special” in the fact it was filmed live and beamed to 14 different countries and to a large number of UK cinemas as part of the NT Live initiative, which I think is a brilliant idea and I commend the NT for such foresight to be doing this. Before the play we were treated to a 10 min video where Nicholas Hytner and the cast talked about the play and we were shown lots of clips from the rehearsals. In this Nicholas Hytner talked about his vision for setting it in a modern time and in a totalitarian state where “everyone is being watched” just as they were in Elizabethan times. I was intrigued by this and thought – “aha, this could be the thing I’ve not ‘got’ in Hamlet before”. The lights dimmed and off we at the National and the thousands throughout the world went into this vision.

Two hours later, I was pleased the interval had arrived, I was literally numb and desperate to stretch my legs and have a drink. As I looked around, I wasn’t the only person trying to hide the fact that this wasn’t much fun. However most were saying how marvellous it was and how Rory Kinnear was playing Hamlet like this…. but Tennant had done this…Oh and had you seen Jude Law’s? I kept my lips tight, maybe the security cameras on the set were now being trained on us. I dare not be informed on. For the first time EVER in my theatrical experience, I was pondering leaving at half time, could I really put my buttocks through another ninety or so mins? In the interests of this being an important play and that I couldn’t write a review unless I had seen the whole play I returned. Often Act 1 can be a bit slow but Act 2 makes up for it, such as in Women Beware Women. Alas poor Yorick this was not to be.

The end finally arrived and the audience clapped, whooped and a few even stood. I was just pleased it was over and I am considering making watching this an endurance event for the Olympics in 2012.

So what made this such a bad experience??? Firstly I truly believe this isn’t a good play. It’s far too long and needs editing to up the pace. Yes, it does have some WONDERFUL sayings in it that have found their way into our everyday speech. To quote from it, “The play’s the thing”, and this isn’t Shakespeare at his best in my opinion.

The modern setting also was lost on me, this is a “surveillance society” so why don’t any of the numerous guards around the set, ever report what they’re overhearing?? Is no one watching the CCTV cameras? Also it was rather convenient that when Hamlet kills Polonius, there are no guards or cameras watching. If they had it would have saved us about 30 mins of the play.

Shakespearean Product Placement

Was it the cast? Well here’s the rub. I take my hat off to them for doing this demanding play. It truly is a marathon and they deserve to be congratulated. However I have an inkling that the reason Hamlet is touted as “the greatest play ever”, is because it allows the cast and especially whoever is playing Hamlet to be totally self-indulgent for 4 hours. It reminds me of a juggler, musician, dancer or magician who is talented but spends most of their act showing off and entertaining themselves rather than the audience. Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet while accomplished and clever, left me cold. His wearing of a T-shirt with “Villain” written on it seemed a bit shallow and I wasn’t surprised to see them for sale in the foyer, but such “product placement” isn’t necessary. Hamlet is a character with few (if any) traits that help you like him, and I didn’t so perhaps Kinnear did his job, as I couldn’t stand Hamlet. When he asks, “Am I a coward?”, if it wasn’t being filmed I probably would have yelled out “YES!”.

A friend asked if the filming was intrusive and put me off, not at all, the film crew were actually fairly inconspicuous and unnoticeable which is amazing. I’d definitely see a NT Live event at the National again.

So I’m left in a quandary really. I’m not trying to be contrarian or controversial for the sake of it. I just don’t like this play and seeing it, reinforced that, despite me hoping the opposite would occur. This “emperor” of a play certainly has no clothes as far as I’m concerned.

Rehearsals, the blood, sweat and tears (more often from laughter) the audience never sees

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Myself and Alex Wakeham rehearsing A Few Good Men earlier this year

Rehearsals commenced for the next production I’m involved in, The Matchgirls, last night, it was great to finally get stuck in, after knowing for a couple of months I had got the part of George Bernard Shaw.

I love the rehearsal period of a production, it’s a time of discovering more about the play, yourself and each other and the camaraderie developed in productions is like nothing else. This show has a large cast of varying ages and abilities, but I got a good “vibe” from everyone last night, that I think bodes well for the rehearsals and more importantly the actual production.

I always feel a bit miffed that the audience of a production only ever see the final product. They never get to see how that came to be. The creative process of taking a script (and score in this case too), and realising that on the stage is what fascinates me about the theatrical process. Currently on TV in the UK is the programme Strictly Come Dancing and while I enjoy seeing the Saturday night dance, I love seeing the video of the couples rehearsing and training the week prior to the show, to see how they and the dance has developed, from just an idea in the choreographers head to a stunning (or not in some cases) piece of dance on the Saturday night.

My role in The Matchgirls isn’t a huge one, and so it’ll give me time to sit back and observe the rehearsal process and hopefully assist others as and when applicable. It can be a very draining experience rehearsing, physically, mentally and emotionally, but it’s necessary for us to push ourselves in order to put on a good piece of theatre.

This will also be the first time I’ve played an historical person on stage too, and one who himself was a playwright makes for quite a unique opportunity. I enjoy his writing and actually feel quite chuffed to be portraying one of my literary inspirations on stage. I’m fortunate as he’s the same age as me in this play, and so I had a look online to see if there were any photos of him from this era of his life and this is what I found;

So I have some work to do in the beard department! However I do like his suit and look forward to being kitted out in something similar.

As the process develops I’ll log some of my observations here, and hope to see some of you at the production in February. (tickets are released at the end of December)

Larkin With Women – Miller Centre Theatre Caterham – Review

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We battled through the ice and snow to get to the Miller Centre Theatre’s current production Larkin with Women. Was it worth the Herculean effort?

I have to admit I was pretty ignorant of Philip Larkin, I knew he’d refused the Poet Laureate post and died in the mid 1980’s but that was it. This play vividly portrays his life and the three women that played such a key role in it.

Brian Miller played the part of Philip Larkin, and it was an OUTSTANDING performance. He really brought Philip Larkin to life before our eyes, his foibles and his more personable traits. He delivered the witty lines perfectly, and the reading of Larkin’s poetry was very moving and effective. The final dying scene was done really well and despite Larkin’s faults, I felt sad to see him go.

Brian Miller as Philip Larkin and Jane Monaghan as Monica Jones

The three female love interests were all ably performed, Jane Monaghan played Larkin’s long-suffering partner Monica Jones, Avril Swift played his uptight Catholic mistress Maeve Brennan, and Denise Scales played his secretary turned lover Betty Mackareth.

My only criticism would actually be Ben Brown’s script. The scenes are very short which means the play feels quite “bitty” especially in Act 1. You just feel you’re getting into it and then the scene would end and we’d have to wait while the cast got changed/scenery changed for the next scene. This was done as speedily as possible by the crew and ably covered by the use of different Jazz tracks that Larkin liked. Act 2 was much better in this respect. The actual scripting and dialogue was excellent, I just feel the chopping and changing of scenes could have been eliminated by Ben Brown.

As I’ve said before I love going to the theatre when I’m not sure of the play and/or subject matter. Again I’ve come away with my horizons expanded, keen to read some more of Larkin’s work and having seen another great performance at The Miller Centre Theatre.

Enron – Wow

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Yes I know I’m about 12 months late, but I’ve finally got round to reading Enron by Lucy Prebble. Anyone who’s currently in the UK knows that we’re snowed in across the country and so an afternoon off work seemed like a good chance to catch up with some reading I’d been wanting to do for a while.

The University of Dundee's satellite receiving station captured this image of how the heavy snow of the past week has affected the UK. The picture, which was received at 1145 GMT on Thursday from Nasa satellite Terra, shows almost the entire country covered by a blanket of snow.

Enron had been a play I’d wanted to see when it was on, but it’s sell out run at the Royal Court prevented me from going, and then I never got round to seeing it when it transferred to the West End unfortunately.

So as I snuggled down into my sofa with a nice hot drink, all that was missing was a roaring log fire, my central heating was on, so that had to do.

In short, I thought it was brilliant, and deeply regret not getting to se it when it was on in London. One of my favourite plays is Caryl Churchill’s Easy Money, and this certainly has a similarity, Lucy Prebble gives the story of greedy investment bankers a wonderful contemporary twist and feel.

I commend her for tackling this still thorny issue and managing to explain the intricacies of the financial shenanigans without the play ever coming across as an economics lecture (in my time at university I say through far too many of those, and still don’t get them, other than faintly remembering lots of graphs). I also thought her use of the audio/visual aspects of theatre are excellent and look forward to seeing them realised at some point in the future.

A Scene From Enron

 

This is a well written, well paced and structured play, which is refreshing for a modern play. Lucy Prebble clearly has researched her topic but brings across the fact that it was people that instigated this crisis and unfortunately people that suffered the consequences.

The UK tour has just finished, but hopefully it will tour in 2011, if so I’ll be making a beeline for a ticket. In the meantime grab a copy, find a sofa, cup of tea and enjoy it.

ps. I read this in the collection ; The Methuen Drama Book of Royal Court Plays 2000-2010, which is a collection of 5 plays from that decade, it’s an excellent selection.