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For the archive, we have filed reviews of several 1999 productions on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Baby Doll - Collected Stories - Comic Potential - The Pub Landlord - Quartet - Song at Twilight - The Weir

 

Baby Doll Lyttelton Theatre, then Albery Theatre Winter 1999-2000 (Reviewed in Birmingham, Autumn 1999)

This production of the Birmingham Rep comes to the West End after a short guest run at the National Theatre...

Tennessee Williams's 1956 film was actually cobbled together by Elia Kazan from two earlier Williams one-act plays, with Williams providing some polish. Denounced at the time as immoral, entirely on the basis of its ad campaign (those of a certain age will remember Carol Baker in a slip, sucking her thumb in a crib), it is actually a comic fable of subtle vengeance and romantic awakening.

In a Southern small town, cotton gin operator Archie Lee has married the infantile Baby Doll but held off consummation until she feels ready. Meanwhile competitor Silva Vacarro has ruined Archie's cotton gin business by providing better quality at lower prices. Misjudging the town's attitude toward this Italian interloper, Archie Lee burns down Vacarro's gin, but instead of being hailed as a hero, he finds himself dodging the law.

Rather than taking legal vengeance, Vacarro turns his attentions to Baby Doll, and seems bent on seducing or even raping her. That's what happens in the original one-act play, but here Vacarro takes a different vengeance, leaving Archie Lee under the threat of the law and Baby Doll awakened but unfulfilled.

Lucy Bailey's production opens with a hommage to the film's iconic image of Baby Doll in a crib, using moving front panels in place of a curtain, to create the effect of an iris-in and iris-out shot. The same device is used later, to 'cut' from room to room of the house, as Vacarro chases Baby Doll around. But the imitation-cinema effect is used too sparingly to be a production concept, and just slows things down.

The play also just misses the tone of comic fable that Williams intended to give it an air of innocence. (While Williams is known mainly as a realistic writer, many of his plays, particularly the shorter ones, are openly fables, with a Southern Gothic Grimm's fairy tale quality.) Bailey and her actors don't seem sure how realistic they are meant to be, and as a result the characters sometimes seem to be inhabiting different plays. Archie Lee is just an unpleasant low-life, not a comic ogre; and the production doesn't seem sure whether Baby Doll is mentally retarded or just unawakened, so that Vacarro's seduction and manipulation of her approaches the distasteful. Only the second act twists that reveal Vacarro's more devious victory bring the play back to the level of comic romance.

Jonathan Cake introduces Vacarro as a sensual macho stereotype and only gradually reveals levels of determination and intelligence. Tom Mannion can find nothing more than caricature in Archie Lee, while Charlotte Emmerson has been directed to play all her scenes like a child in a school play, facing front and shouting to the back wall.

Gerald Berkowitz

Collected Stories Theatre Royal Haymarket, Autumn 1999

Okay, so the critics were lukewarm about the play and unkind about the performances, but really there's very little to get worked up about and I wouldn't be surprised if an award comes out of this one.

Howard Margulies' Collected Stories will hardly resurface in a hundred years time on the lists of classic plays, and my colleague assures me it wouldn't last a night on Broadway, but this is the West End and one likes to think every show gets the time to prove itself.

The story is a simple enough protegee-outstrips-mentor-who-resents-it two-hander. Ruth Steiner is the Jewish dragon of a certain age who lives alone in her New York apartment - she rests on her laurels as an incisive dissector of relationships through her acclaimed short stories. Lisa Morrison is the student WASP with literary pretensions who ventures into her heroine's shadow - the type of she'd like for her own.

As their relationship builds, the personality poles reverse and Lisa soon finds her own voice, leaving Ruth to cope with the loss of the girl she has groomed to do precisely that. As Ruth herself says: "Getting what you want is the worst thing that can happen to you." Although the tension and jealousies between the two are never really exposed, there are touching moments - particularly in the vein of supplanting old with new - as well as more than a few laughs.

Helen Mirren and Anne-Marie Duff are suitably restrained. This is not to say that they give perfunctory performances - far from it. With the slight material to hand, any hamming up or playing to the gods would tip the balance - instead, their subtlety washes over you.

Mirren is wonderfully understated, playing genteel but tetchy, worldly yet virginal, switching from mood to mood sparked by the catalyst of her young writer. She settles into US literary sophistication - Anne Bancroft at a pinch - and New York Jewishness - Elaine Stritch at a stretch - but one senses a slight strain from perhaps not having enough input from director Howard Davies. Her transition from strident middle-age to wandering old age is smoothly rendered.

Duff gives a gutsy performance as the almost stalker-like admirer who dreams of emulating her heroine's craft and career. She makes the transition from gawky undergraduate to mature writer convincingly, hammered home by her Œauthor's lecture' to the audience in Act II as she reads from her soon-to-be-published first novel.

Perhaps more suited to the summer season, when Mirren would be an undoubted draw for the crowds from out of town, this makes for a warming experience on a cold winter's evening.

Nick Awde

 

Comic Potential Lyric Theatre 1999-2000

As chronicler of the foibles of Middle England, Alan Ayckbourn isn't everyone's cup of tea, but his latest comedy has enough laughs in it to keep most happy. Comic Potential, which he also directs, takes a satirical stab at the world of TV studios, using the commissioning process, executive back-stabbing and diminishing role of actors as his palette.

The time is the near future, a believable extension of our own world and its uneven values, where only technology has advanced, leaving human nature (and clothes sense) trailing far behind and rooted firmly in our present. In a TV studio the expected denizens - faded star director, crabby technician, posh controller - bicker over the quality of the interminable soaps they churn out. The difference is they don't use real actors but actoids, pre-programmed life-like robots - they're more reliable, cost effective and don't answer back.

Young scriptwriter Adam Trainsmith (Matthew Cottle), the nephew of the studio's reclusive owner, has come to develop classic comedy for a world that ignores it. Studio executive Carla Pepperbloom (Jacqueline King) merely has designs on his body while producer Chandler Tate (David Soul) prefers a good beer to teaching him the secrets of the craft. Frustrated, Adam discovers that one of the actoids, Jacie Triplethree (Janie Dee), can respond to him of her own volition thanks to faulty manufacture, and before we know it, he's teaching her the art of the double-take ("like Zero Mostel on speed!") and falling in love.

Blade Runner, Buster Keaton, Metropolis, Network - the references pile up in what is a great love story, a sort of inverse Beauty and the Beast for the Machine Age. The mix of humour and pathos can be occasionally shocking, in particular the extraordinary scene where Adam teaches Jacie to read from a bible.

Mind you, this is hardly great satire and the characters are over-diluted to make them audience-friendly - but the play works effectively, with elements of farce neatly concealed along the length of the plot like comic time-bombs. A pointless slapstick fight at the end rather spoils things, as happened in Ayckbourn's Things We Do For Love last year - disturbingly, the audiences in both cases derived great pleasure from the spoof violence.

It's a thorough enough ensemble. David Soul, who has made the West End his new home, amuses himself with a suitably throw-away Rip Torn - prickly with a soft centre. King is suitably vampish as Carla Pepperbloom but could go a little more over the top. Cottle as Adam Trainsmith however is disappointingly wimpish, which perhaps is understandable considering he's pitted against Janie Dee.

As Jacie Triplethree, Dee steals the show. A gifted actor, dancer and mimic, she is also an effortless comic. She is rubber faced but sexy with it, appearing Monroe-like at times with echoes of Jane Horrocks in Little Voice at others.

John Branwell is a suitably demented Lester Trainsmith, while Becky Hindley, Suzannah Hirst, Eleanor Tremain, James Hornsby, Helen Pearson and Bill Champion effortlessly juggle parts between them with skill.

Recommended on three counts: the comic masterclass, David Soul and Janie Dee.

Nick Awde

{Janie Dee subsequently won the Evening Standard, Critics' Circle and Olivier Awards for best actress.]

 

The Pub Landlord: "...And A Glass Of White Wine For The Lady" Playhouse Theatre 1999

What can possibly be said about Al Murray that hasn't been said before? Over barely a decade his alter ego The Pub Landlord has gone from strength to strength - hilariously, relentlessly, unstoppably.

And maybe one day globally. At first glance, Al's landlord is the very epitome of the great British Bulldog spirit gone to seed, something that wouldn't travel well outside of England let alone the outside world where foreigners and their funny habits lurk. But something in this solo show magnificently transcends boundaries - at least some of them.

After all, the more Al concentrates on the very 'Britishness' (well, Englishness is nearer the mark) that creates such a chauvinistic caricature, the closer he gets to striking an international chord.

What started as the fill-in in between acts I first saw years ago has now become transformed into a full two-hour boozy show where The Pub Landlord regales us from his pub with a string of observations mainly on how 'Great British Thinking' is all that keeps us apart from Johnny Foreigner.

There's nostalgia for the days of the British Empire ("When a fifth of the world was coloured pink... not the colour I would have chosen"), advice to "the Ladies" about not only what to drink but how to keep a smile on the faces of their men, and a timely warning not to let thinking too much get in the way of a happy life.

But underneath the character study lies a 'straight' stand-up bursting to get out, and Murray slips in a string of asides including a wicked analysis of Sartre along with an almost disturbing dissection of the stock market. It's a multi-layered show that offers a rare opportunity where everyone tunes into the same wavelength, orchestrated by a master conductor who, in this case, alternately mocks and praises his audience with equal glee.

What's his secret? Murray's less dark than Alf Garnett or Archie Bunker, and far funnier. Like them, though, he looks the part and he never strays from his comic subject. However, he does leave the script frequently, and that's the hook. In fact, it's impossible to tell where the script ends and the ad libs begin.

A man therefore in total control, Murray has a wicked line in audience-baiting so be warned: the front rows - oh, at least the first 20 - are off limits if you don't want your lily-livered lifestyle made public or have a pint glass foisted on you in place of your common-as-muck beer can.

Of course you'll be offended, so go!

Nick Awde

 

Quartet Albery Theatre, Autumn 1999

If you've ever wondered what happens to retired thespians, look no further than Quartet, where a benevolent home for faded egos is the priceless setting for a trio of aged opera stars whittling away their final years courtesy of charity. But their comfortable routine is thrown out of synch by a blast-from-the-past new arrival.

This reunion of nobodies who once were somebodies produces some fine pointwork. The moment she enters, diva Jean Horton (Angela Thorne) already has three of her no less distinguished peers gasping in a wake of merciless put-downs. "So dreadfully disappointed to have so many chorus members pointed out to me," she archly observes on being given a tour of the facilities.

The opera committee suggests she helps her colleagues recreate the famous quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto (space forbids me from elucidating further but it involves the Duke of Mantua and Maddalena chattering amorously while Gilda stands heartbroken and Rigoletto vows vengeance) - a role they last performed as an ensemble more than thirty years ago. Jean refuses, but the entanglements of the past work their wicked ways...

I do the production no great disservice in saying that it is simply a vehicle for theatrical talent, much as was on these stages a generation ago. But what a vehicle. Acting by numbers this may be, yet this is your chance to see four well-known faces at work strutting the stuff that has made them such enduring names.

Thorne trades in her usual delectability for Jean's frostiness, which sits well against jilted husband Reginald Paget (Alec McCowen), whose natural woodenness is for once thoroughly in the character of a straitlaced prude. Playing off them for laughs are Stephanie Cole and Donald Sinden, whose flirty Cecily Robson and sex-obsessed Wilfred Bond careen around the home with abandon. As always, Cole and Sinden are superb to watch and their comic control is such that they can milk a laugh as long as they (and the audience) desire.

The plot and writing are a tad static, however, assuming as they do that one just winds up the actors and off they go. But Ronald Harwood's play does hold interest in that it deals with ageing, particularly problematic for those of the theatrical persuasion, as stars slip along with the busts and waistlines. But under Christopher Morahan's direction, these characters reflect more the elderly actors playing them and not how one imagines OTT ex-opera folk. And maybe it's a more enjoyable production for it.

First performed this summer at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, this is of course perfect for the Ayckbourn brigade, but there is also universal appeal: a witty study of over-the-hill, over-sexed, over-stimulated creative souls girding themselves for a final clash of ailing egos. A delightful romp of a show, so sit back, click into cruise and you won't be disappointed.

Nick Awde

 

Song At Twilight Gielgud Theatre Autumn 1999

Three Redgraves on one stage -- that was the main attraction of this revival of a late and lesser Noel Coward play.

Siblings Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, along with Kika Markham (Mrs. Corin), do full justice to a play that marked Coward's one tentative step into painful self-exposure.

Although he himself considered this portrait of an ageing and successful writer faced with the exposure of a homosexuality he has hidden all his life to be inspired by Somerset Maugham, the relevance to Coward's own carefully-maintained closeted public image is too clear to be missed.

Corin Redgrave plays the successful author comfortably sliding into the role of elder statesman of literature. Cosseted by the wife he treats like a secretary (Markham), he has just published an autobiography cementing his chosen persona in the public eye.

But he is suddenly visited by an old mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) who, after some initial flirtatious sparring, discloses that she has letters he wrote to the one true love of his life, a man.

Her purpose is not blackmail, as he immediately assumes, but something more ambitious and complex. She wants him to publicly admit the truth, as an act of moral courage and artistic honesty, convinced it will make him a better man and a better artist.

His explanation of why this is impossible, including a bitterly impassioned condemnation of society's homophobia, gains power as we realise this is surely Coward's own voice.

Vanessa Redgrave has the flashiest role, striding into the room with an authority that immediately takes possession of it, so that only slowly do we recognise the conscious effort it takes her character to maintain this front.

Corin's character is also playing a role. With his uncombed hair and distracted mien, he at first resembles the late British comedian Tommy Cooper. But we learn that Ageing Eccentric is just a suit of armour. Under the persistent chipping-away by his visitor, his real and fragile self is exposed.

The process is fascinating to watch. As layers of pretence and false front are stripped away from each of them, our sense of the characters and the balance of power between them constantly changes. At first she seems overly theatrical and he rational; then he reacts melodramatically as she turns all-business; then she is exposed as a sentimentalist while he regains self-control.

Brother and sister are both masters of underplaying, and the most powerful moments come in stillness, as a slight shift in posture or expression, or just a telling silence, exposes the crumbling of a mask.

(Kika Markham is merely serviceable in a role that admittedly is badly written: the wife is such a mousy doormat in Act I that it is inevitable that she should turn out to be the most clear-headed of the three at the end. So, while she too changes, there are few surprises or revelations.)

That the dialogue is punctuated with the trademark Coward wit goes without saying. The Redgraves make the most of the play's darker side, the discovery that we all have private, closeted selves we hide from the world.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

The Weir Ambassadors, then Duke of York's Theatre, 1999-2000

The setting is an Irish village pub. A man, evidently a regular, enters and sees that the barman isn't around. He walks behind the bar, grabs a bottle of Guinness and opens it. And then, just when we think he's pulled a fast one, he opens the cash register, puts in his money, and closes it - and in those few seconds author Conor McPherson and director Ian Rickson (and designer Rae Smith) have established a whole world with absolutely convincing authenticity.

Authenticity of milieu is a necessity for this play, which is very much place-bound. In a sleepy little Irish village, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has heard every story everyone has to tell a dozen times, the introduction of a stranger is a glorious opportunity.

In this case the one mild success in the whole town (and thus, of course, envied and resented in equal measure by all the others) enters with a young woman to whom he has just sold a house. The ageing bachelors stumble over each other to flirt awkwardly with the newcomer, and their mode turns inevitably to storytelling. And with that shift, McPherson's play finds its real voice, not merely a rustic slice of life, but a chilling ghost story.

At first innocently, because it's one of his stock stories, one tells a benign account of a fairy encounter. But that leads another to top him with a real ghost story, and then one to top him with a really scary one. And then the woman tells of her own encounter with the supernatural, and she scares the hell out of you, not because hers is any more eerie than the others, but because it involves real human emotion.

To underline this powerful realization, that it's the human emotion that makes a tale become real, McPherson adds one more story that is the most frightening of all, and it includes no supernatural element at all, just (just!) a man's discovery of the meaninglessness of his entire life.

It shouldn t work. It's just a bunch of people sitting around telling stories. But the play's two great strengths - the solid-as-the-wooden-set believability of the characters and their world, and the effectiveness of their narrations - complement each other perfectly. It's because you believe in these people that their stories work, and it's because the stories are so evocative that the world of the tellers is so fleshed out.

The original Irish cast has been replaced, but I'm told that, an occasional wavering accent aside, the new cast is just as good. For my money, The Weir does everything that other theatrical ghost story, The Woman In Black , tries to do, and is far more successful.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Baby Doll - Albery 1999 Review - Collected Stories - Haymarket 1999 Review - Comic Potential - Lyric 1999 Review - Al Murray - Playhouse 1999 Review - Quartet - Albery 1999 Review - Song at Twilight - Gielgud 1999 Review - The Weir - 1999