Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Harold Pinter Theatre

Celebrity Deathmatch: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pits Lord Varys against Dolores Umbridge

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Edward Albee’s 1962 chamber piece about a quarrelling middle aged couple gained notoriety with the casting of tumultuous middle aged couple Burton and Taylor. A realist step too far. Having seen the film adaptation, I approached this new adaptation with some trepidation. For a play where not very much happens, it is long. With an interval between Act 1 & 2 and a ‘short pause’ between Act 2 & 3 it is worlds apart from the nice, 80 min, no-interval plays that are de rigour these days. I can hold my bladder for more than 80 mins, but as soon as that usher mentions ‘No Interval, No readmittance’.. my heart and pelvic floor drop. So the idea of a play with not one, but two toilets opportunities is more than welcome.

The casting is also on point. Imelda Staunton is probably the most revered grande dames lording over British theatre. For an actress who became so acclaimed in film and television to still work so prolifically in theatre is refreshing, as opposed to a statement role to prove they haven’t forgotten their roots. I am rather a staunch fangirl for Staunton. Having seen her in Gypsy but sadly missing her Sweeney Todd, both at Chichester Festival Theatre, I relished the chance to catch her in a straight drama before her return to Sondheim adaptations with Follies (!) at the NT later in 2017. Conleth Hill too is an exciting prospect. He certainly knows how to deliver a withering put down. Arguably, his banter with Tyrion in Game of Thrones is one of the highlights of that HBO behemoth. Curious Incident’s Luke Treadaway and goto for British kooky Imogen Poots complete the cast.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Taking our seats in the compact Harold Pinter theatre, we were barked at to switch off our mobile phones. There was a lot of barking, it was a bit patronising to say the least. As the play begins, we are in a spacious, mid century American lounge. Designer Tom Pye has done a stellar job recreating the period setting. With the current ubiquitous interior design trend for all things 70s, the props looked like they’d come from a John Lewis catalogue. Spacious as the room is, it would prove to be an intimate pressure pot.

I hadn’t seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before this production. I was aware of it, but the Burton-Taylor film and the casting of a real-life bickering couple had really overshadowed what is a masterpiece of a play. George and Martha are a new-England couple: George (Conleth Hill), the underachieving college professor; Martha (Imelda Staunton) the daughter of the college’s Director. George and Martha return drunk from a party and we quickly learn they have more guests to arrive. At the beginning, the warring couple spew bitchy line after bitchy line to comedic effect. Its like a particularly heated episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.. and the library is definitely open. As the play progresses, what started as funny becomes painful. Their guests, Nick and Honey, are the targets they turn their attention to. It seems like a well rehearsed piece, with Martha making her advances on the younger Nick (played by Luke Treadaway), while the naive Honey is plied with brandy.

The big reveal at the end has maybe lost some of it’s potency. I get the impression that in 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would’ve been controversial and shocking. The frank exposure of the truth behind the veneer has probably lost some of it’s edge now. ‘Shocking’ plays are ten e penny these day. but Albee’s dialogue is still sharp some 45 years on. I wouldn’t cut a line from it’s 3 hour run time.

Imelda Staunton Martha Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Imelda Staunton’s caustic Mama Rose.. I mean, Martha.

Staunton brings all of her usual stamina and power to Martha. The musical theatre chops she has shown as Mama Rose in Jonathan Church’s excellent Gypsy revival have put her in good stead for this role. Martha shares Rose’s fragility, sexual allure and volume. I half expected Staunton to break out into Rose’s Turn at a few points. It really was a barnstorming, superlative performance – the kind that leaves you a bit shaken. Conleth Hill is equally ferocious. From George’s early subservience to the bolder Martha, his character grows in stature as the plot progresses, through jealousy to nurture. Treadaway brings the right level of smarmy to Nick. Its the least interesting character, but it’s believably acted at least. Imogen Poots completes the quartet. I’ve long been a fan of Poots, from a performance as Sally Bowles in a BBC biopic of Christopher Isherwood. She brings the same wide eyed naivety to Honey and plays silly drunk convincingly, attracting some of the biggest laughs.

Imelda Staunton Martha Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Harold Pinter Theatre

(L-R) Luke Treadaway, Conleth Hill, Imogen Poots and Imelda Staunton

For the most part, James MacDonald’s new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? keeps it simple, allowing Albee’s play and the actors to do their thing. It works. Albee had billing above the star casting and deservedly so. His play is the star here, but Staunton et al give it a good go. The most telling thing I can say is, I would watch it again – after reading more about the play.

The Harold Pinter seems to offer a good number of well priced seats, to see good plays and high profile actors – if there are seats left, I’d implore anyone to see it if they have the chance. Its open now, running until 27th May. Click here for more info.

Pride and Prejudice at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that there is no such thing as too many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Right?

Pride and Prejudice the play
When I saw that Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre were part of this season’s drama at the Wales Millennium Centre, I was more than a little excited. Jane Eyre can be a bit drab, but has enough of that Brontë high gothic drama. Pride and Prejudice though, is life. I remember watching the 2005 Joe Wright and it filled me with so much joy. I jutted out my jaw, pouted and spoke like a walking thesaurus for weeks after, a la Keira (but more resembling Mr Collins). Controversially, I’ve never seen THAT BBC adaptation – I’ve tried watching it, but it doesn’t have the same sheen as this movie, it looks a bit dour. So to see my favourite of Jane Austen novels adapted for the stage, arguably favourite book – I leapt at the chance.

Fittingly, Simon Reade’s Pride and Prejudice first premiered at the Theatre Royal in Austen’s very own Bath in 2009, arriving in Cardiff via a revival in London’s Open Air Theatre . Reade has done a very good job adapting Pride into a succinct two hours and ten minutes (plus interval). The best parts of Pride and Prejudice are not Lizzie and Mr Darcy, regardless of how much promotional material will try and convince you. Austen gives her entire ensemble of supporting players a fully realised character. Who has time to swoon after Darcy when you’re wincing at Mr Collins or laughing at Mr and Mrs Bennett’s bickering?

Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly as Mr and Mrs Bennet

Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly as Mr and Mrs Bennet

Max Jones’ set itself is great. A deceptively simple two tier, wrought iron revolving frame which the drama unfurled around. The clever use of space and movement of props felt comfortingly old fashioned. The direction as well, was oddly old fashioned. Not at all naturalistic or subtle, many of the actors moved and shouted as if they were in an 19th century Oscar Wilde adaptation before the invention of microphones. It is almost a criticism, but I thought it worked, intentional or otherwise.

From the actors, Stars in the Eyes legend Matthew Kelly brought some camp to the droll Mr Bennet. Although I had thought it was Bridget’s Mum, turns out Felicity Montagu is not whom I thought, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless (Perpetua from Bridget Jones’ Diary to big bosomed Sue in Nighty Night). Felicity Montagu made a wonderful, shrieking Mrs Bennet (whose nerves you really do believe get the better of her). The rest of the cast was fine, competent. I didn’t much like the Lizzie or Mr Darcy – as Lizzie, Tafline Steen was enthusiastic but shouted too many of her line; Benjamin Dilloway was too haughty a Darcy to really believe the romance. Their eventual kiss had a delayed and less than enthused whoop from the audience. Casting wise, it was also good to see ‘colourblind casting’ in such a touring production. After the hoohah about black Hermione, it was good to not hear people moaning about the author’s intent. Jane Austen probably hadn’t imagine that 200 years later, they’d be making yet another adaptation of Pride, so who can say what her intent would be.

Tafline Stine and Benjamin Dilloway as Elizabeth Benney and Mr Darcy Pride and Prejudice

Tafline Stine and Benjamin Dilloway as Elizabeth Benney and Mr Darcy

All In all, I didn’t dislike the evening and I would recommend it to Austen fans and cynics. I have enough residual interest in Pride and Prejudice to remain engaged throughout this adaption. It was mostly well acted, well adapted and competently staged, but for Austen with such a bright, vivid wit, this production was ever so slightly dull. Not up there with the 1995 or 2005 screen adaptations, but not down there with that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disaster either.

So tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… underwhelmed by this Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

Pride and Prejudice is at Wales Millennium Centre until February 25th.

All pics pinched from the Pride and Prejudice the play website.

..and lastly. Just cos.

Colin Firth Wet Shirt Mr Darcy Pride and Prejudice

Mr Darcy in all his wet shirt glory.

La Bohème & Le Vin Herbé at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Two Nights at the Opera: an accidental double bill.

Firstly, snaps to Welsh National Opera for offering £5 tickets to under-30s. Other institutions seem to think that once you’ve turned 26 – you’re suddenly in a position where you can afford to go from £5 to £25 average for tickets. (LOOKING AT YOU NATIONAL THEATRE). At 26 I was just finishing Uni, spending too much money on rent and sadly, culture wasn’t a priority. If the idea of these youth-subsidised tickets is to encourage new generations to patron the theatre, it would be better applied to 25-30 year olds. Once you really appreciate the benefit of an evening not spent drunk, theatre becomes so much more enticing. So kudos to WNO, for allowing pretentious, middle class millennials a cheap night at the opera. Thanks to some unfortunate double booking, I had to reschedule my nice Saturday evening La Bohème performance to a Wednesday night, with Le Vin Herbé Thursday.

La Bohème

Everyone with a passing interest in musical theatre should be aware of La Bohème – it shares basic plot elements with Jonathan Larson’s Rent (also on its way to WMC in April). Baz Luhrmann also directed this very bohemian opera in 1990 for Opera Australia that almost certainly inspired his own Moulin Rouge a decade later. When Rodolfo and Mimi are scuttling around looking for her key on the apartment floor in the moonlight – I had Light my Candle stuck in my head instead of Puccini’s rousing score.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

It was a competent revival of Annabel Arden’s take on the Puccini piece, originally staged for the WNO in 2012. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design was stark and cold. There was no rose tinting of the poverty of the bohemian quartet, highlighting the warmth and exuberance in the jolly second act jaunt to Café Momus. Of the main players, Gary Griffiths and Lauren Fagan’s Marcello and Musetto made a bigger impression than Rodolfo and Mimi. While her arias were delivered well, Marina Costa-Jackson presence is too strong to be convincingly dying of tuberculosis.

La Boheme WNO Wales Millennium Centre

Much has been said in the press about Manlio Benzi’s conducting, being a little unruly. I don’t confess to being familiar enough with Opera to really notice either way. I’m not entirely convinced that La Bohème itself really deserves it place in the revered opera canon. Iconic story aside, I didn’t really find any of the music that memorable. The most resonating part of the whole two hours was Mimi’s spot lit corpse, harshly spot lit, alone on the stage. Give me Rent any day.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO's La Bohème.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO’s La Bohème.

Le Vin Herbé

If La Bohème is possibly staged a bit too often, then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé is definitely not stage often enough. Written between 1938-41, although it could easily be much more contemporary than that. Based on the same tale as Richard Wagner’s better-known take on the Tristan and Iseult story, but the similarities end there. This piece is a small and intimate, more oratorio than opera. Whether through budgetary constraint or artistic vision, this WNO revival has a stark staging. A bridge, with steps on either side, dominates the bare, black stage, with the few musicians assembled in front. This places the music and the performers at the forefront.

WNO's bare staging of Frank Martin's Le Vin Herbé.

WNO’s bare staging of Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé.

The story itself is as old as time itself, the ill-fated lovers with tragic ends. The Vin herbé of the title is the love potion that sets the tragedy in motion. The libretto is sung mostly by the chorus – and in English. I’m in two minds about an English libretto, at once easy to just listen and not be distracted reading the surtitles. It can also sound clunky, with clichéd phrasing becoming more apparent when you understand the language.

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the star crossed Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the ill fated Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Le Vin Herbé was a wonderful listen, particularly Caitlin Hulcup’s Irish princess Iseult whose strong mezzo range handled the challenging role with ease. Her entrance astride the bridge, in contrast to the black clad cast. Conducting Martin’s dramatic composition was James Southall who did a brilliantly energetic job. There were also moments of beauty in April Dalton’s simple staging and set design. A huge white sheet dropped from above stage at a pertinent moment. The large chorus laying candles at Iseult’s body, one by one – it was moving stuff.

Caitlin Hulcup's invigorating Iseult as the tragedy builds.

Caitlin Hulcup’s invigorating performance as Iseult as the tragedy builds.

I’d assumed that this was going to be a more intimate production, having read about previous stagings. I wondered how they were going to adapt Martin’s intimate oratorio for the large Donald Gordon auditorium, made even more massive by the bare staging. The answer was by expanding the chorus. I’m not entirely convinced by this, there were at times too many bodies on the stage, or unnecessarily wandering through the audience (not singing, so I didn’t glean the intentions). It made the scene changes a little overlong in a concise, interval-less production. That said, it was a brave choice for WNO to stage such an unknown piece, and it seemed to sell reasonably well for a Thursday night performance. If the strong reviews from National press are anything to go by, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé will deservedly emerge from the obscure. It was a real treat of an evening.

So a double bill of opera turned into a great showcase for Welsh National Opera, with two very different productions and two starkly different viewpoints on them.

La Bohème is touring until 28th April, Le Vin Herbé is touring until the 25th April. For more info, go to the Welsh National Opera website.


Sinners Club at The Other Room Theatre, Cardiff

Leaving London, one of the things I’ve missed the most was the abundance of theatre. There’s no denying that the cultural scene has improved outside of the capital in recent years. The continuing success of Chichester Festival Theatre, the Leicester Curve and Manchester International Festival prove that the provinces DO care about culture. For its relatively small size, Cardiff enjoys a disproportionate amount of culture led by established venues like the Millennium Centre and the Sherman Theatre. What most cities lack are the small fringe venues and theatre pubs that really push the limits. They offer drama outside of the centre, on a smaller scale. For a company like The Other Room to emerge in Cardiff is a promising sign indeed and Sinners Club proved a promising start to the season.

Sinners Club The Other Room

Sinners Club forms part of their Spring Outliers season., a co-production between the Other Room theatre company, Mold’s Theatr Clwyd and Gaggle Babble. Staged in The Other Room’s intimate space in a side room of Porter’s (opposite the Motorpoint). The space is probably the same as one floor of a small 2 Up 2 Down miner’s terrace but can fit up to 44 people. For Sinners Club, there are two rows of seats around the room with gaps for the band. presumably most of the action is to take place in the centre. Intimate is an understatement. Arriving late and slightly flustered thanks to some unexpected traffic, we ended up sat in the front row which would inevitably result in audience participation (initial anxiety was not misplaced). Mark Bailey’s design sees the venue as a recording studio, complete with a recording booth in the corner. The only other adornments are some neon lights and scattered pics of the last woman hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis.

The play started as the band tuned up. The writer and lead actress of the play Lucy Rivers swaggers into the room in some oversized sunglasses. Without much introduction the music starts. More gig than theatre, Sinners Club bears a tonal resemblance to Rivers’ other work with Gagglebabble. Fictional band, The Bad Mothers are recording a live concept album about the aforementioned Ruth Ellis and the audience has been invited to watch (and participate in) the recording. So far, so meta. Over the 90 minute run time, we get insight into the tragic story of Ruth Ellis through song lyrics and spoken interludes. It’s a fascinating tale. Ellis is a relic of a time gone by, largely forgotten by the public – but at the time was sensationalised by a sexist press like a glammier Aileen Wuornos.

The Bad Mothers are a passable band, the players are more than capable and Lucy Rivers as the singer has a gutsy, bluesy tone to her strong rock voice. Not at all musical theatre, Sinners Club is definitely more gig-theatre. The music itself reminded me of mid-2000s indie favourites Howling Bells’ bluesy-grungey art rock. I’d like to get my hands on a recording of the music as it’s too hard to take in a whole set of new songs on first listen. Standouts were a surreal moment involving a fable about a bird leaving home with an elaborately feathered, Maleficent referencing costume. The other standout was Carolyn, a country infused number complete with cowboy hats and mandolin, – a close relation to that other classic scorned woman country jam Jolene.

Sinners Club The Other Room Theatre Kiera n Cudlip

Rivers herself is obviously very talented – multi instrumentalist, composer, writer and singer. Through the 90 minutes, the lines between Ruth Ellis and her unnamed singer blur as the drama crescendos with Ellis’ inevitable demise. It’s not a light watch, and the rather hard seats (and lack of interval) took meant those 90 minutes took their toll on me physically and mentally. The parallel plotline between the unseen producer and the singer was a bit harder to swallow than the Ruth Ellis story – it just felt a bit unnecessary and clunky. That said, we did go on a preview night and the Cardiff run leads up to another run in Theatr Clwyd so this could be ironed out.

Ultimately, Sinners Club’s intimate gig-theatre was worth seeing for Rivers’ performance alone, but the snapshot of a darker time in British history was a welcome bonus and a timely reminder of the Establishment’s heavy handed justice.

Sinners Club runs at The Other Room at Porter’s until Saturday 18th February, then at Theatr Clwyd, Mold from 2nd to 18th March.

Run Time 90 minutes

Writer Lucy Rivers

Director Titas Halder

Designer Mark Bailey