Tag Archives: Robert Piwko

Happy Days
★★★★★

The Tower Theatre

Happy Days

Happy Days

The Tower Theatre

Reviewed – 17th April 2019

★★★★★

 

“Jones and Sullivan have done Beckett justice – a daunting achievement of which many have fallen short”

 

If you’re not familiar with this Samuel Beckett play, first staged in New York in 1961, it follows the daily routine of Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. She has a bag of little things that help her get through the day: a toothbrush, a hand mirror, makeup, a hat, a music box. She does her best to maintain her cheery demeanour in spite of everything. Winnie’s husband, Willie, is ever-present, but mostly hidden behind the mound. A masterpiece of absurdism, Happy Days is essentially an hour and forty-minute monologue.

To say the play is challenging, both technically and dramatically, is an understatement. An exercise in anti-theatre, it purposefully breaks all the rules: it’s static, without plot, quiet, adagio, and abstruse. These are all pitfalls for theatremakers, but Robert Pennant Jones’s production with Ruth Sullivan (Winnie) transcends. Jones and Sullivan have done Beckett justice – a daunting achievement of which many have fallen short. They’ve beautifully expressed his insight into empty lives, and people starving for genuine connection. The play feels as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.

The set design (Max) is striking – immediately impressive when you enter the space. Where soft earth or sand is normally used for the mound, Max has crafted a dramatic mountain of sharp shale. The ominous black rocks emphasise the harsh and unforgiving nature of Winnie’s imprisonment. The design leans somewhat into the interpretation that the play’s setting could be Hell.

Peggy Ashcroft, a famous former Winnie, once described the role as “the Hamlet for female actors.” Ruth Sullivan’s performance is as exceptional as the part demands. She expertly plays the veneer of chipper positivity over a profound sadness – the desperate strain beneath Winnie’s apparently breezy attempts to communicate with Willie (Ian Hoare). With the lightest touch, she allows us glimpses into the vastness of Winnie’s loneliness. Tears pool in her eyes before she pulls back with an apologetic smile and sigh: “Oh well… Mustn’t complain…” Sullivan portrays an intellectual, curious, loving woman deprived of stimulation. Neglected. Her joy at the smallest shred of acknowledgement is heart-breaking. Her vulnerability is devastating.

Sullivan’s flawless timing shows a deep sense for the rhythms of Beckett’s language. Her characterisation is so natural it ideally contrasts with the bizarreness of her situation. A dense, enigmatic, nearly two-hour monologue dares an audience not to be bored. But Sullivan is captivating. She lifts the lines, bringing out the poetry in Beckett’s writing. Winnie is delightful, silly, and endearing. She is also acutely suffering, and holding back oceans of anguish. Sullivan’s ability to communicate all of this, while stuck in place from the waist (and later neck) down, is marvellous.

If you’re a Beckett fan, do not miss this show. If you’re new to Beckett, grab this opportunity to discover his genius. Sullivan’s superlative performance deserves a packed house. It’s one you won’t forget.

 

Reviewed by Addison Waite

Photography by David Sprecher and Robert Piwko

 


Happy Days

Tower Theatre until 20th April

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
To Kill a Mockingbird | ★★★½ | October 2018
Table | ★★★★ | November 2018
The Seagull | ★★★ | November 2018
Talk Radio | ★★★½ | March 2019

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com

 

A Christmas Story
★★★½

Waterloo East Theatre

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

Waterloo East Theatre

Reviewed – 30th November 2018

★★★½

“I couldn’t tell whether I left humming the melodies because they were catchy, or just because they just recurred so many times in the show”

 

A Christmas Story: The Musical is a stage adaptation of the 1983 film of the same name. It’s a national treasure in the US, with a tradition of being played back to back on one TV channel for 48 hours from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. In the UK, there’s not the same collective consciousness. Without any prior knowledge, the plot is pretty bizarre.

The story follows Ralphie, told in flashback by his older self, counting down to Christmas somewhere in Indiana in the mid-1940s. He’s obsessed with convincing his parents to gift him a Red Ryder Carbine action BB gun. His parents, teacher, even a drunk Santa at the Department Store, all give him the same reply to his request: “you’ll shoot your eye out!”. So far so normal. It’s the wacky sub-plots involving Ralphie’s dad winning a lamp made from a female mannequin’s leg and other such vignettes that make it difficult to connect with an otherwise sweet family story.

Keen musical buffs may note that the music and lyrics are by Pasek and Paul. The duo are the songwriters behind the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen and also wrote lyrics for the songs in the Oscar winning film La La Land. The songs here are familiar in format and style, but none feel as powerful or memorable. I couldn’t tell whether I left humming the melodies because they were catchy, or just because they just recurred so many times in the show.

The cast is kept tight, with the majority of roles accounted for by children from the British Theatre Academy. The children’s roles are shared across two casts, with all those I saw providing sweet and endearing performances. Felix Hepburn as Ralphie does a great job with a hefty role, practically on stage and carrying the story for the full two hours. Special mention should also be given to Ethan Manwaring as Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, who was fizzing with enthusiasm and always carrying a cheeky grin. The adult performers provided high calibre vocals which were some of the most pleasing moments of the show.

Where present, the choreography was slick and personally, I would have loved to see more. Oliver Harman’s set design and Becky Livermore’s costume did well to evoke a sense of a mid-western 1940s home. But overall, the disparate and madcap plot let this piece down.

 

Reviewed by Amber Woodward

Photography by Robert Piwko

 


A Christmas Story

Waterloo East Theatre until Monday 22nd December

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
Doodle – The Musical | ★½ | January 2018
Unburied | ★★★★★ | March 2018
Romeo & Juliet | ★★ | June 2018
Liberty Rides Forth! | ★★★★★ | October 2018
The Greater Game | ★★ | November 2018

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com