Category Archives: Reviews

Two Character Play

Two Character Play

★★★★

Hampstead Theatre

Two Character Play

Two Character Play

Hampstead Theatre

Reviewed – 27th July 2021

★★★★

 

“Occasionally melancholic, always mesmerising, totally memorable. A masterpiece of theatre”

 

“To play with fear is to play with fire. No, worse, much worse, than playing with fire. Fire has limits.”

Tennessee Williams knew the importance of opening lines, and in “The Two Character Play” he captures the essence of what is to come. It is simultaneously reassuring and unsettling. It’s a theme that runs through much of his earlier writing, but in this later work it is much less opaque; we know the flame won’t be held back by the yellowing parchment through which we see it flicker.

In a way Williams was playing with fire. Rather than relying on his critical and popular acclaim he wanted to experiment and expand his writing style. It met with a mixed reception at its world premiere at the Hampstead Theatre, disconcerting critics and audiences. But over half a century later it definitely bites with a sharper resonance than ever before. The timing is perfect. A two-hander, we are introduced to Felice and then his sister Clare. They are both “artists of the theatre. Long prepared for working under unexpected conditions”. They have been abandoned by the rest of the company but are nevertheless determined that the show must go on despite the “eccentricities of the time”. Suffocated by their isolation and afraid to go out, the characters’ only choices are to face each other or to face their demons.

The structure is a play within a play, and Sam Yates’ production has perfectly captured this concept. As Felice and Clare prepare for their performance the houselights remain lit, the lighting rig is at floor level and the space is littered with the props and unassembled pieces of scenery. We don’t quite know when the pre-show ends and the show begins. Just as we are never sure of the shifts between the actors and their characters; whether we are in reality or in the play. Or in the play within the play. The blurred lines are always intentional, reflecting the brother and sister losing their own grip on reality.

Zubin Varla, as Felice, and Kate O’Flynn, as Clare, are outstanding and unforgettable. The chemistry burns and crackles with an enforced intimacy and horrific backstory that keeps them forever entwined. The fire of their performance is fanned by the many refreshing waves of comedy that they bring to the roles. It’s a skill that is rarely seen in theatre and Varla and O’Flynn wield it mercilessly through their wonderful shifts in mood, without diminishing the desperation that motivates their characters.

The second act dips into a darker domain. Lee Curran’s shadowy lighting and Dan Balfour’s surround sound design heighten the mood. A false ending trips us up and unfortunately dispels the magic momentarily as we slip into a flash of Gothic Horror. But the poignancy returns as the siblings (are they the actors or are they the characters they are portraying?) start to re-enact the tragedy that befell their parents.

They are unable to see it through. It is as unresolved as the play itself, and as the couple pull the plug on proceedings they are again alone on the bare stage. Their (imagined?) audience has also abandoned them, while they are imprisoned in the theatre. Too tired to be frightened now, they realise that fear is limited. “Clare, your mind’s going out” whispers Felice. Tennessee Williams was haunted and inspired by his sister Rose who was plagued by mental illness. “You must never make fun of insanity” Rose once reproved her brother “It’s worth than death”. In “The Two Character Play” Felice is left a note by the company that abandoned them: ‘Your sister and you are… insane!’. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. Varla and O’Flynn portray the characters with a perfect mix of exaggeration and sensitivity of which Williams would be proud. There is no answer really, just as the play has no real conclusion. We can part with reality at times, but we can never part with each other.

Occasionally melancholic, always mesmerising, totally memorable. A masterpiece of theatre.

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Marc Brenner

 


Two Character Play

Hampstead Theatre until 28th August

 

Reviewed by Jonathan this year:
Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Hung Parliament | ★★★★ | Online | February 2021
Bklyn The Musical | ★★★★★ | Online | March 2021
Remembering the Oscars | ★★★ | Online | March 2021
The Picture of Dorian Gray | ★★★★ | Online | March 2021
Disenchanted | ★★★ | Online | April 2021
Abba Mania | ★★★★ | Shaftesbury Theatre | May 2021
Cruise | ★★★★★ | Duchess Theatre | May 2021
Preludes in Concert | ★★★★★ | Online | May 2021
You Are Here | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | May 2021
Amélie The Musical | ★★★★ | Criterion Theatre | June 2021
Bad Days And Odd Nights | ★★★★★ | Greenwich Theatre | June 2021
Express G&S | ★★★★ | Pleasance Theatre | June 2021
Forever Plaid | ★★★★ | Upstairs at the Gatehouse | June 2021
Forgetful Heart | ★★★★ | Online | June 2021
Staircase | ★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | June 2021
The Hooley | ★★★★★ | Chiswick House & Gardens | June 2021
Be More Chill | ★★★★ | Shaftesbury Theatre | July 2021
Heathers | ★★★ | Theatre Royal Haymarket | July 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

Gin Craze

Gin Craze!

★★★★

Royal & Derngate

Gin Craze

Gin Craze!

Royal and Derngate Theatre

Reviewed – 21st July 2021

★★

 

“The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping”

 

This new musical – book and lyrics by April de Angelis, music and lyrics by Lucy Rivers – brings to life William Hogarth’s shocking 1751 etching ‘Gin Lane’ portraying grotesque caricatures of people suffering from the Gin Craze that was rife in the early part of the eighteenth century. As the curtain rises, we meet a number of these ladies under the influence who sing, dance, and extol the virtues of their favourite tipple. A pawn broker’s sign hangs close to the stage, the same sign as in Hogarth’s print.

The set (designed by Hayley Grindle) is built on two levels and reinforces a view of the class divide with the wealthy Fielding family and a semi-sozzled Queen Caroline appearing on the upper level whilst the gin ladies are firmly rooted on the ground and at the bottom of society. Through the shadows of wooden beams and hanging ropes, we can see various musical instruments: harpsichord, violin, cello, double bass, guitar, timpani. Each member of the eight strong ensemble takes their turn at becoming the band. Plus the ever-present MD Tamara Saringer at the keys.

For much of the time we could describe this as a folk musical. The singing is gentle and refined, the lyrics ballad-like in form, and the duets between the two main leads contain excellent close folk harmonies. The arrangement of the songs is most striking particularly those making use of violin and cello underlay.

The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping. “Gin Dive” is the standout song that reappears close to the end in a poignant unaccompanied close harmony version. “It’s the Law” becomes a good old cockney knees-up with comedy trombone. Many of the scenes can be described as bawdy – and are especially enjoyed because of that – at times they are out-and-out plain rude.

The plot – or the message of the show, perhaps – is summed up with the song title, “What does a woman have to do to get a better life?”. We follow the journey of Mary (Aruhan Galieva) who whilst working as a servant is knocked up by the visiting priest, kicked out into the street, tricked into giving away her baby, and narrowly avoids rape and prostitution by setting up as a gin hawker. We learn that life for a woman is not a bed of roses. But then, Mary befriends Lydia (Paksie Vernon), her saving grace.

Director Michael Oakley produces the most spirited scenes when the gin women appear on stage together. If their individual characters do appear on the caricature side of sincere then we can allow that they may have been first based upon a cartoon. But, in the midst of tragedy, despite the best efforts of this hard-working cast, there is little tension to be felt and we remain unmoved. Particularly, much of the momentum is lost after the interval as attention turns away from the rumbustious Gin Lane into the genteel home of the foppish Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni) and his do-gooder sister Sarah (Rachel Winters).

April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers have created a most fascinating feminist – and musical – response to an interesting period of English history which reflects well on Hogarth’s masterpiece that initially inspired the idea.

 

 

Reviewed by Phillip Money

Photography by Ellie Kurttz

 

Gin Craze!

Royal and Derngate Theatre  until 31st July

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
Animal Farm | ★★★★ | Royal & Derngate | May 2021

 

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