I’ve been quite the culture vulture of late, and have seen three plays – and somehow haven’t managed to write about any of them. So I’m going to whip through all thee of them quickly in one post… I have more to say about the first than the others, but they were all great in different ways.
Good People at Hampstead Theatre
My friend Andrea and I took a trip off to Hampstead (where I saw a very good play about Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, On The Rocks by Amy Rosenthal a few years ago) and we saw Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. It’s since transferred to the Noel Coward, where it will be ’til 14 June, so I don’t feel guilty about recommending what would have been the last performance.
Truth be told, we went because Imelda Staunton was in it – and I knew essentially nothing else about it. To me, Imelda will always be the Provincial Lady (a role she took in a Radio 4 dramatisation) but I also love her in Vera Drake, Another Year, and all sorts of other things. She was on my bucket list of actors to see, and this was a brilliant play to see her in.
Basically it’s about being poor in America. Imelda has a strong Boston accent from the first scene, where her character Margaret is fired from her job at a checkout for being consistently tardy – which is because of her disabled daughter. We next see her with her friends Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (June Watson) – both of whom are loud and animated, and especially while playing bingo (which is where they head next). There is plenty of talk about how to cope without income and without prospects – when Margaret learns that her old schoolfriend Mike is back in town. And she wonders if he’ll perhaps give her a job…
Mike (Lloyd Owen) is a big success – a doctor – but he has become what Margaret calls ‘lace curtains’. He’s offended; he thinks he’s still Southy at heart. But he won’t give her a job; he doesn’t need a new receptionist. This escalates into a perfectly balanced argument about whether or not he has stayed true to his roots – never quite a shouting match, but never far from it – and he invites her to a party he’s having with his young and beautiful wife Kate (Angel Coulby, whom I know from underrated teen drama As If). Neither of them think she’ll go, and he phones to say it is cancelled… angrily she goes. And then the already brilliant play gets even more brilliant.
The scene is so well written, and so well acted. The audience don’t know precisely what the truth is about the history between Margaret and Mike; neither does his wife. And no emotion is straightforward in this scene (or, indeed, this play). Margaret – and this is Imelda’s play, she is extraordinary – is angry, hopeful, regretful, proud, witty, even a bit forgiving. It’s a spectacular character, so complex, and needs an actress as astonishingly talented as Imelda Staunton to fill it. So much power comes from such a tiny woman! Having said that, it is more of an ensemble production than I’d imagined from the advertising – the whole cast is brilliant, and it’s probably in the top three plays I’ve ever seen. Very emotional, also very funny. Do go and see it if you have a chance.
OH, and we waited around in the foyer afterwards, and spotted Imelda Staunton’s husband (Jim Carter, aka Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) – AND we braved going and asking for her signature. She was very sweet, and we were buzzing all the way back to the coach home.
The Play That Goes Wrong by the Mischief Theatre Company
From the emotional and poignant to the unashamedly hilarious. I took a day trip to Malvern, in my old stamping ground of Worcestershire, and saw the touring production of The Play That Goes Wrong (go and see if they’re touring anywhere near you). It’s essentially a spoof of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in the tradition of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (so I’m lead to believe, having not seen it.)
An amateur dramatic society is putting on a murder mystery play. It goes wrong in every conceivable way, from even before the play begins, as the stagehands are trying to keep a mantelpiece in place (aided by a lucky member of the audience).
The actors forget their lines, they accidentally repeat them, mispronounce them, or they make no sense because of bad staging or props (I particularly loved “Is that your father’s portrait?” collapsing into despair, as the actor realises that the portrait is actually of a dog in a deerstalker.) An actress is knocked out, and replaced by a reluctant – but increasingly enthusiastic – stagehand. But what I most loved was the way in which the stage fell apart. It just kept collapsing, more and more, including the supporting pillar for a mezzanine level, which falls to a steeper incline at intervals throughout the rest of the play – which means a couple of very talented and very agile actors have to keep furniture from falling to the ground, while still delivering their lines.
It’s all very silly, but impressively done. Some of the actors are more able than others at convincingly being actors (if you see what I mean) but it’s not exactly a play which requires staunch realism. But the biggest applause should go to the set designer and set builder – its deconstruction is like choreography. I laughed hard all night, as did the good people of Malvern – they were definitely ready to be amused. (One sidenote: any accident can be masked as deliberate in this sort of play, which did lead to some audience confusion when one of our number was led out, and the ‘lights guy’ – an actor too – was involved. Turns out she was just ill.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
This one probably doesn’t need any introduction. Some colleagues from OUP and I went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Alastair McGowan (also Worcestershire’s finest, fyi) play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady without the songs. Just in case you don’t know the premise, Higgins has a bet with a friend that he can pass off a Cockney flower girl as a Duchess in the space of a few months, simply by training her in manners and voice. It basically works, but Higgins is an unobservant cad and doesn’t realise the emotional effect the process is having on Eliza Doolittle.
It was an amusing production of an amusing play. I also discovered that Shaw was a lot less progressive than he thought – or, rather, he was ahead of his time in terms of sexism and classism, but very much behind our time. Oh, but he does LOVE to labour a point – the final scene hit us over the head with his point so many times that he’d make Ibsen seem subtle. But that’s all par for the course – it was a great production, and my only real complaint was that it didn’t have any songs. (Ahem.)