HEDDA GABLER at the Reading Rep Theatre
“a thrillingly inventive show, with strong and engaging performances from every cast member”
The programme promises an ‘electric’ performance ‘steeped in queer rage exploring how the most famous female character of all time is trapped within a life chosen for her’. This off-putting hyperbole shouldn’t stop you rushing to see this terrific re-imagining of Ibsen’s famous 1891 masterpiece.
Turn-of-the-century Norway has become present day London in Harriet Madeley’s sassy new play which is a co-production with A Girl Called Stephen Theatre, which has as its mission ‘queer/womxn led theatre for Reading and beyond’. The script is sharp and witty with heaps of semi-poetic dialogue that includes a knowing line about White Company bedlinen and another about school mums with ‘puffa coats and keep cups’. In this production there’s also clever use of a pair of microphones that heighten the audience’s appreciation of key passages of dialogue.
The cast of five is directed by Annie Kershaw. She has put together a thrillingly inventive show, with strong and engaging performances from every cast member. Anna Popplewell fizzes with magnificent frustration as Hedda, stuck in a new marriage with an innocent young academic called George. This may be her first stage role, but she has distinguished film and TV credits including the Chronicles of Narnia for Disney and Love in a Cold Climate for the BBC.
Mark Desebrock’s George (Globe on Tour, Beauty and the Beast at NT and many more) is likeably naïve and a perfect foil to Hedda. Ryan Gerald makes George’s publisher Brack a vividly gangling wide-boy. George’s former male colleague and new rival Eilert Lövborg has become Hedda’s lover Isla in this show. She’s played with energy and conviction by Jessica Temple (Peter Pan, National Theatre and roles at Nottingham and Bristol). Natalie Perera strikes just the right note for Thea, Isla’s slightly goofy and foolish lover and co-worker.
Designer Amy Watts has devised a striking set with a deep well almost like a boxing ring at its centre. The simple design enables some impressively creative lighting design by Murong Li. The sound design by Jamie Lu is similarly smart, with some subtle atmospheric sounds that ramp up the tension just when it is needed.
In the thrilling second half, the light-hearted verbal fisticuffs shift up several gears. To escape her trap, Hedda must ‘do something beautiful’. An impressive denouement is achieved at speed and with the shocking impact of the best classical tragedy.
Reviewed on 27th February 2023
by David Woodward
Photography by Harry Elletson
Previously reviewed at this venue:
King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed – 27th March 2018
“This production has no weak points, and provides frequent moments of genuine hilarity”
The Mikado was first performed in 1885, when the British Empire was at its height, and Japan was seen as an utterly alien but intriguing nation. Japanese objects and artefacts were all the rage, and Gilbert and Sullivan tapped into this Japanophilia to satirise English governmental bureaucracy – creating a sort of 19th century musical version of Yes Minister.
In this current production, by the Charles Court Opera at The King’s Head, Glenn Miller’s jaunty hit, Chattanooga Choo Choo, plays as we take our seats, and places us firmly in the 1940s. Together with the gentle amber glow of the stage, carpeted and comfortably furnished with a Chesterfield sofa and other accoutrements of a gentleman’s club of the period, the tone is set for this tremendous production, which sparkles with joy and warmth. The choice of setting also sensitively and cleverly deals with the potential pitfalls of cultural appropriation, with Rachel Szmukler’s beautiful painted Japanese-style wall panels providing the perfect visual reference point in an otherwise British colonial environment. The cast – with the notable exception of Philip Lee’s splendid déclassé outsider Ko-Ko – speak and sing in heightened RP, which pokes affectionate fun at this most ludicrous of stories, whilst at the same time celebrating its enduring appeal.
It is clear from the first number that we are in good hands; the three opening singers (Matthew Palmer, Philip Lee and Matthew Kellett) in fine voice, relish the crisp fun of W. S. Gilbert’s peerless lyrics, and Damian Czarnecki’s choreography is tight and snappy to match. David Eaton’s faultless accompaniment, from an upright piano in the corner of the stage, sets the pace, and never lacks energy, even in the few moments when the operetta’s frenzied clip gives way to a more romantic or contemplative interlude. John Savournin directs with surety and panache, and David Eaton’s musical direction, plus superlative work from the show’s young cast, ensure that not a word or note is lost. This surely is the way to see Gilbert and Sullivan, in order to savour every fabulous rhyme and cherish every melody in this frenetically brilliant score.
This production has no weak points, and provides frequent moments of genuine hilarity, not least in the terrific contemporary updates in the perennial favourite ‘I’ve got a Little List’. In the midst of such a rollicking good time it can often be difficult to carry the audience into more poignant territory, but this is ably done throughout, and special mention must go here to the wonderfully affecting rendition of Katisha’s solo ‘Alone and yet alive’ by Matthew Siveter. Alys Roberts and Jack Roberts are perfectly cast as the young lovers Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo; Alys Roberts’ exquisite soprano ranging effortlessly from effervescence to sweet romance, and blending beautifully with Jack Roberts’ crystal clear tenor. Matthew Palmer, Matthew Kellett and Philip Lee are terrific throughout, both vocally and comically, and Jessica Temple and Corinne Cowling fizz with girlish glee as Yum-Yum’s companions. Whether you are are new to The Mikado or already a fan, this production simply cannot be bettered. It deserves every accolade that will undoubtedly come its way.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Bill Knight
King’s Head Theatre until 21st April