Tag Archives: Robert Mountford

Cancelling Socrates

Cancelling Socrates

★★★★

Jermyn Street Theatre

Cancelling Socrates

Jermyn Street Theatre

Reviewed – 7th June 2022

★★★★

 

“Littler and his team never disappoint in what they achieve in one of the most challenging theatre spaces in London”

 

Cancelling Socrates, just opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre, will please fans of Howard Brenton, one of the powerhouses of British playwriting of the last fifty years. The play may seem a departure from Brenton’s usual concerns. But then we think of Pravda, (written with David Hare) which engages with similar themes of promoting troublesome ideas to a wider public. In that con-text, a play about a long dead philosopher doesn’t seem like such an outlier in the Brenton canon.

Cancelling Socrates is about one of the most famous events in the history of western philosophy—the trial and execution of Athens’ leading philosopher. Socrates was a notable gadfly and “corrupter of the young” as his critics described him. Cancelling Socrates has all the hallmarks of Brenton’s craft—engaging dialogue, liberally sprinkled with witty one liners—and a plot that features extraordinary characters, dealing with fallout from forces greater than themselves. Brenton has always had a nice line in satirical edginess that can highlight a tragic situation while prompting an audience to laughter. But whereas the characters in Pravda have to deal with unscrupulous media barons, Cancelling Socrates has merely to deal with unscrupulous gods, and Athenian citizens tired of being stung into thinking for themselves. Right from the start, you know the arguments our eponymous hero marshals in his defence, are not going to end well.

This premiere production, directed by Tom Littler, and starring Jonathan Hyde as Socrates, places us directly in the philosophical fray of Athens in 399 BC. The limited space available at the Jermyn Theatre is once again utilized to clever effect, (set design by Isabella van Braeckel). In addition to the stylized Greek pillars and friezes, there are signs in both English and Greek available on stage for those patrons needing the toilets, and the sparse set actually gives a sense of spaciousness, which Littler and his cast use well. Cancelling Socrates opens with a blend of English and Greek until we are all settled down, and ready to engage with some philosophical wordplay (mercifully all in English.) Robert Mountford, who plays both Socrates’ friend Euthyphro in the first half, and the Goaler in the second, is an engaging foil for Hyde’s Socrates. Euthyphro is firmly on Team Socrates, but even he is begging for mercy by the end of a run in with the great man over what constitutes holy and unholy acts. It’s a nice set up for what follows.

Those who remember the pathos of Socrates’ death from Plato’s description in the Phaedo should not expect a similar effect in Cancelling Socrates. Brenton sets up the wit perhaps too well, so that the moment of drinking hemlock seems like whimsy, rather than tragedy. Even the presence of compelling characters such as Aspasia (Sophie Ward) and Xanthippe (Hannah Morrish) never quite shift the emphasis from the domestic to the civic. The trial takes place off stage, which doesn’t help. There is much talk of the gods, and the daemons that allegedly prompt Socrates into the acts that doom him. These arguments might not resonate much with a modern audience, even though Brenton reminds us that 5th century Athens was in a similar state of turmoil to 21st century London. It’s a tenuous connection, at best.

Nevertheless, time passes very pleasantly with Cancelling Socrates. Littler and his team never disappoint in what they achieve in one of the most challenging theatre spaces in London. The Jermyn Street Theatre is always warm and welcoming. This play is not a date night show, perhaps, unless you are both philosophers. But it’s provocative, and yes, even family, entertainment. You should definitely take up the opportunity to corrupt your own young.

 

Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Steve Gregson

 


Cancelling Socrates

Jermyn Street Theatre until 2nd July

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
This Beautiful Future | ★★★ | August 2021
Footfalls and Rockaby | ★★★★★ | November 2021
The Tempest | ★★★ | November 2021
Orlando | ★★★★ | May 2022

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews

 

Spike

Spike

★★★★

Watermill Theatre

Spike

Spike

Watermill Theatre

Reviewed – 31st January 2022

★★★★

 

“John Dagleish embodies Spike Milligan in a memorably empathetic way”

 

This tribute to the comedy legend Spike Milligan is the work of ‘Private Eye’ editor Ian Hislop and his colleague and friend Nick Newman. It coincides with the 20th anniversary of the death of this renowned writer of the BBC’s anarchic radio comedy show ‘The Goon Show’, which ran from 1951 to 1960.

Many under the age of 45 will be barely aware of Milligan, who as Stephen Fry, in the guise of a BBC announcer, points out at the end of the show, was comedic gold for generations that followed him. ‘The Goon Show’ was a brilliantly disruptive success for the Corporation, even if the managers there didn’t quite understand it. It remains available online to this day.

There are jokes and madcap nonsense by the box load in this warm and affectionate play which grew out of a reading of the extensive and argumentative correspondence between Milligan and the BBC. Spike discovered the BBC was run by the same officer class he’d resented in wartime. Why, he wanted to know, was the writer of the show paid a fraction of that given to the ‘talent’ Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers? And what was wrong with poking fun at royalty?

The play is structured as a loose series of chronologically arranged scenes beginning with the very early days of ‘The Goon Show’, just six years after the end of the Second World War. The BBC was male-dominated then. By way of balance, Margaret Cabourn-Smith opens the show as the likeably goofy sound effects girl who like her colleague the Head of Drama’s Secretary, ‘will some day run the place’.

Robert Mountford is the entertainingly preening BBC executive who is quick to give Spike a dressing down that flips him to the nightmares of wartime. John Dagleish embodies Spike Milligan in a memorably empathetic way. He has the look of Spike, who he imagines as a troubled and inward looking outsider, still fighting a war at the BBC.

Jeremy Lloyd gives an excellent impersonation of the young Harry Secombe and the trio of Goons is completed by George Kemp (of Bridgerton) as a suave and smooth-talking Peter Sellers. James Mack gives a tour-de-force performance as the harried Director of ‘The Goon Show’. Ellie Morris memorably plays Spike’s inevitably long-suffering wife, June, as well as other roles.

‘Spike’ is probably at its best in the second half when we see a Goon Show being recorded. If the ending of the play was slightly unexpected (and there was no ‘Ying Tong iddle-i-po’!), it was hard to imagine how else to bring down such a hugely entertaining show.

Spike Milligan once joked that he’d be remembered as the man who ‘wrote the Goons and then died’. This show is an enjoyable celebration of his life’s work and a feast of nostalgic fun that will delight audiences of all ages.

 

Reviewed by David Woodward

Photography by Pamela Raith

 


Spike

Watermill Theatre until 5th March

 

Recently reviewed at this venue:
Brief Encounter | ★★★ | October 2021

 

Click here to see our most recent reviews