Friday, 13 January 2012

‘Warhorse’ - New London Theatre - Thursday 14th April 2011

(Rated 5/5 )

I was warned by a good friend NOT to see Warhorse, having confided to this friend that I cannot watch a horserace without crying. A dog is a man’s best friend – so true – and I have one who is mine. Yet the empathy I feel for horses allows them right to the inside of my heart and from there any emotion they have feels magnified from within that core of me. They are the noblest and most beautiful of animals. And they are the puppet stars of this hit show.

Tears - no problem – I don’t mind a good cry and so off I go armed with plenty of tissues and I thought a forewarned and thus fortified heart. Within seconds Joey, the foal had penetrated those fortifications and I was in floods. All he did was come on stage. I say all, but in that all, the form of the puppet and the attention to detail of a horse’s movements, mannerisms, emoting, noises, foibles and attitudes were fully present. You see three puppeteers billed as the head (Sarah Mardel), heart (Jack Parker) and hind (Ellie Burrow) of the animal, and yet they all become part of the whole such that you love the full single being. And with that comes the suspension of disbelief even though in front of you it is so obviously a wooden horse held together and animated by three people.

And so Joey’s story begins, being sold in an auction that sets up the conflict between brothers Arthur and Ted Narracot as they outbid each other far beyond their means in an ongoing rivalry. Ted (Andy Williams) wins but then has to confess to wife Rose (Nicola Stephenson) that he has spent the mortgage money. Somehow Joey is going to have to work to pay his way and it is their son Albert (Jack Monaghan) who is assigned the task of training him for the job. There follow absolutely delightful scenes as Joey and Albert bond, developing a special trust and code of communication exclusive to them as Albert trains Joey to work on the Devon Farm that is home.

And then a powerful transformation as Joey rears, and grows, up to become horse Joey played by an even more impressive wooden puppet together with Stephen Harper (head), Stuart Angel (heart) and Thomas Goodridge (hind). Meanwhile we are introduced to Captain Nicholls (Nicholas Bishop)  watching the blossoming relationship between man and horse and drawing it in images, which become important and crucial to the story later on, and serve as part of the beautiful projected landscape artwork by designer Rae Smith.

Ted continues to add challenges to Joey’s life in yet another wager with his brother – this time Joey has a week to learn to pull a plough to ‘save his life’ as Albert says in desperate encouragement. And so he does only then to be faced with a far greater challenge…

World War 1 strikes and Joey is sold by Ted (for a large sum) to become a warhorse. Albert is heart-broken but reassured by Captain Nicholls that he will take good care of him. Albert cannot go with Joey as he is too young to join up. However, Joey is introduced to another stallion, Topthorn. The captain puts the two horses together to play out their necessary masculine scuffle – with more excellent puppeteering of the brown and black horse-puppets - before becoming good companions.

The brave captain is killed in battle and Joey’s drama-filled journey continues through encounters good and bad, including with French-girl Emelie (Sarah Mardel again), who befriends him with sugarlumps and German soldiers who threaten his life. Joey’s skills as a plough-horse save him and in teaching his equine friend to also take the equipment, Joey also saves Topthorn. German soldier Friedrich Muller (Patrick Robinson) switches to English to confide in both horses. Following this session with his equine counsellors, Friedrich takes the high risk decision to defect and take the horses to safety with him.

Joey and friends face constant life-threatening dangers. Even though many of these characters have very little stage time we feel for them all. There is huge skill in the narrative, staging and performances of the piece that allows great empathy and many catharses.

Joey’s story is epic, requiring a set to match. There is no disappointment here – the staging is magnificent.  Scenes are set through singing voices and cartoon animations appearing on the backdrop. Other puppet characters appear, including a variety of species of bird that seem to symbolize the mood and setting at that point in proceedings, most amusingly a goose, who wants to become a house-goose. Puppets are also used to represent other humans and horses during scenes of battle death and destruction. A revolving stage adds a momentum especially in some of Joey’s longer expeditions – displaying both the beauty of a horse in motion and highlighting the puppeteers extreme skill.

The news of the tragic and unnecessary death of Albert’s cousin Billy – killed by a German soldier using the blade given to him by his father Arthur, simply because he would not give it up – reaches the Narracot family. That, together with the receipt of Captain Nicholls sketchbook, triggers Albert to go in search of Joey, carrying with him the portrait of him and his horse by the captain. In his own quest he also faces numerous dangers; at times his story, that of his family still at home on the farm, and Joey’s all told on different sections of the stage at the same time.

Joey and Albert are both wounded in the leg – they had my sympathies and no sticks to aid them as they limped along. The decision is taken to shoot Joey as there are no facilities to save him.

In another part of the stage Albert, blinded by a gas bomb, is once again fretting about horses being harmed as he and his pal can hear a horse in pain.

A gun is pointed at Joey’s head – it fails to fire.

The gun is aimed once more…

This show is perfectly outstanding! A wonderfully moving story, originally by novelist Michael Morpurgo, based on both disturbing and heart-warming true stories of human and equine sacrifice, collaboration and friendship in the time of War. A story of animals who served: Many were sadly and shockingly let-down by those they served. Many were physically pushed to their limits by their masters and tortured to work by those on the enemy side. For some their human foes became friends, whom they happily served in more of an emotionally supportive role. Above all this is the story of the power of one loving bond between a boy and his horse.  A literal must-see!

Warhorse – Review by TheRestrictedReviewer © 2011

Twitter: @RestrictReview

‘Richard II’ - The Donmar Warehouse - Tuesday 10th January 2012

(Rated 4/5 )

There is no doubt in my mind now that the Donmar Warehouse, not only provides the setting of the plays performed within it, but also a hugely important quality; a kind of transpersonal, ethereal character, who adds volumes to the quality of performances of the players and the emotional experiences of individual audience members. It feels appropriate to me to name this character Lady INTIMACY. She enhances the relationships between actors and audiences immensely and provides the deepest connection possible for the theatre. The actors are even more exposed than on the standard stage. The audience members are up close and personal, and at each performance there can only be 250 of them. The performers share in all their brilliance or collapse under their inadequacies. TRUTH on STAGE. I have now seen several productions at the Donmar: Othello with Chiwetel Ejiofor wrenching my heart to breaking point in the title role; King Lear with the ever-stunning Derek Jacobi; A Doll’s House with a wealth of excellent performers and the manically moving Polar Bears – all of which blew me away – and then just one, which will remain nameless, did not. The latter fell flat – was alright but not great – the truth revealed with no hiding behind a magnificent stage or by being far away from the viewing eyes.
The Donmar has completely spoiled me. All other theatres in comparison, and even if just a tiny bit, I find disappointing. And I guess this is why I am writing about it before I even review its production of Richard II! The theatre has only one negative from my point of view – its reputation now exceeds its capacity making tickets very hard to come by. That said, I have joined the returns queue on a number of occasions now and never failed to get in. And at least, if standing and being cold are problems for you, you are able to sit down with a wall against your back, (and something soft under your bum if you’ve brought such an item), and the wait is inside.
And so to Richard II – the play which contains one of the most famous speeches of all time:-
            “This sceptered isle… This England”
- delivered in this case by a Donmar regular, Michael Hadley, in such a refreshingly different way. The speech comes only four lines before the character’s (John of Gaunt) death and is usually delivered with great gusto. In Michael’s conveyance there was a vulnerability and struggle, which brought the power and the passion of the feelings across even more poignantly and heroically. My friend and I noticed several other familiar Donmar faces – I commented the Donmar reuses actors and she said it sounded like they I meant they are recycling them. This all adds to the warmth and intimacy – a family atmosphere. And the star, Eddie Redmayne, is also a Donmar recyclee. His Richard is very youthful, childlike; a boy at once amused by his status as King – playing King – and at the same time overwhelmed by the power and enormity of what being King means to him. He is a youngster trying to be a perfect God – constantly practising how that might be, and in his efforts and naivety failing badly at holding the Heart and the Head of what that role entails at its best. He is corrupted by it all and has to be deposed – and by whom but his own cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, played by Andrew Buchan. They performed like young lads play-fighting – Richard had come to the throne age 11 years; you’re at once endeared and horrified. Richard is healed in his downfall and loss – in a way he has to break-down to break-through – and in that process, and Eddie’s portrayal, I felt so much compassion for him. I was moved to tears and upset by the forced parting from his Queen, Pippa Bennett-Warner, and his murder. For me, although like the next Richard (III), this Richard was something of a conquering tyrant, I felt more empathy for him. In my opinion, he knew not what he did, was never old enough to become wise, and was like a hysterical child set on winning. Yet it shows how dangerous that is given the power and responsibility of his position. Shakespeare was hard on both these Richards though. History shows them to be much better than he made out. But then where’s the drama eh?!
Like The Comedy of Errors the text of this play is very poetic and lyrical. It is a delight to listen to, especially when voiced so beautifully by all concerned.
Director Michael Grandage – whose Donmar reign ends with this play - and my friend both stated this is a play close to their hearts. It is now for me too.

Richard II – Review by TheRestrictedReviewer © 2011 

Twitter: @RestrictReview

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

‘In The Beginning’ - Westminster Abbey, London - Thursday 24th March 2011 : The more professional and shorter version


(Rated 4/5 )

A theatrical run of just 3 hours, a new performance every 5 minutes to 6 people; only 216 would attend. A privilege to be one of those in such a beautiful historical building, host to a show 'starring' The King James Version of the Bible (KJV), in the setting where it was 'reborn'. 

The audience went on a journey round the abbey guided by an actor and taking several ‘stops’, where they experienced an intimate Communion with a performer and section of KJV thus feeling the words were spoken just for each individual.

Our group’s guide was Morven Christe: She played her role with enthusiasm and knowledge beyond the text of Nick Payne’s play. I believed her.

I struggled with my disability and Morven asked if she could help me. From your theatre seat you simply watch and listen. This was very different. How fantastic to have a member of the cast offer to help you participate.

The text contained histories and appropriate Bible readings.

At The High Altar, where all sovereigns since 1066 have been crowned and in front of which is depicted the entire history of the Universe including its hidden date of demise, Morven read from Revelation.

Our next stop was The Quire Screen. Sharon Small’s delivery reflected the sparkling stars on the ceiling of the archway as she read from Genesis ‘In The Beginning…’

We had Andrew Woodall by the tombs of Newton and Darwin. I stood on Newton’s tomb; Morven said he wouldn’t mind. Andrew maintained excellent eye contact while reading and stayed ‘in character’.

In the Chapter House – billed as one of the most ‘acoustically rousing and thrilling locations’ in the whole abbey – Morven and Nonso Anozie performed Job 3 and Job 38 with Morven as Job and Nonso as the LORD; a sexy, scary God! We experienced their voices echo all around us in the deliverence of such powerful verse on humanity and complexity and why we suffer.

Tamsin Greig was patiently waiting for us in the Chapel of St John the Baptist. She was going to read us a love poem and joked that she would not meet our eyes. Throughout her emotive and expressive reading of Song of Solomon 2 I kept my eyes on her; we had several moments of cheeky eye contact.  I felt very connected to the words and to her.

On we went past tombs of monarchs such as Henry V and Edward, The Confessor and many chapels all decorated differently and all awe inspiring in their own ways within the magnificence of the whole building!

Our final destination was the Jerusalem Chamber, home of the final edit and first vocal reading.

Morven read from Ecclesiastes:
“ To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…”

This felt like a mini-season of spiritual power and exchange with these performers and words; a celebration of what I consider as my purpose to experience deep, connected, expressive humanity combined with theatrical performance.

In The Beginning – Review by The Restricted Reviewer © 2011  

Twitter: @RestrictReview

‘In The Beginning’ - Westminster Abbey, London - Thursday 24th March 2011 : The more personal and longer version


My ‘Public’ View:

(Rated 4/5 )

I calculated that given this 'show' ran for just 3 hours with a new 'performance' every 5 mins and each of those to just 6 people - then only 216 people would get to attend. I felt incredibly privileged to be one of those people in such a beautiful and exciting, historical building lending itself to be a theatre for a show 'starring' arguably the most important book of all time in the setting where it was 'reborn' and where of course so many other extraordinary and exciting historical events have taken place. 

It did indeed feel very special to be there after the abbey is usually closed and to be taken to places in the abbey which so few people get to see. And to be amongst the souls - if you like - of so many awe-inspiring, talented, famous and infamous people, who have passed through before, who are buried there or who are celebrated with memorial plaques. 

We arrived early and it all felt so personal straight away as I gave my name and was later organised into my little group of six by being called by my first name. It was a little bit like a game of musical chairs except all in whispered instructions so that we didn't disturb the performances in action at the time.

When our time came we were taken to meet our guide - an actor - who would lead us through our whole journey through the abbey. Right from the outset we were encouraged to stand close and this incredible intimate experience began! On our little journey - if only it had been longer than 40 minutes - we had various stopping points where we were told some history of that particular area of the abbey and had aspects of the building, statues, tombs etc pointed out. And at each 'stop' we were also treated to a reading from the bible, in 3 cases by our own guide, whilst in others by another actor whom we encountered on our journey waiting patiently, silently at the stop. At the appropriate time, after the little story/ies associated with that part of the abbey had been related by our guide, the waiting actor would open their script and 'perform' their assigned reading. I won't name names but some had more impact than others on me depending on how well they read, how much feeling they put into it, how connected I felt with the perfomer via their eye contact or way of conveying the reading in their voice or slight body movements. In each case we were standing so close to them - maybe just a couple of steps away - that I imagined all of us felt we were having the words spoken just for us. It was such a beautiful, intimate, inclusive, open, connected experience. Naturally the words of each passage in themselves had an impact but for me it was the way they were performed that struck me most. On finishing the reading each actor paused, closed their script, some smiled and we thanked them and they us with a return thank you or inclination of their head or a smile. It was so lovely!

The following were the stops and accompanying readings from the Bible (taken from the 'In The Beginning' souvenir programme):-
High Altar: Revelation 1: 4-18
Quire Screen: Genesis 1: 1-19
The tombs of Newton and Darwin: Genesis 1: 20-31
Unknown Warrior: John 15: 1-14
Amnesty Candle: Micah 6: 1-8
Wilberforce Memorial: Exodus 9: 1-13
Chapel of St John the Baptist: Song of Solomon 2
Edward the Confessor's Tomb: Proverbs 16: 10-24
The Lady Chapel: Luke 8: 40-56
Chapter House: Job 3 and Job 38
Jerusalem Chamber: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

Such a brilliant and original way of celebrating two precious 'monuments' of history! Forty-minutes in time I will always treasure.

My ‘Personal’ Experience:

(Rated 4.5/5)

You all know me well enough to know that the very mention of Christopher Eccleston appearing in anything sends me frantically to the internet or telephone to book my ticket to whatever it is and then to get transport to wherever it is come hell or high water! (Haven’t yet sussed out what my geographical limit would be on that or if I have one ;).) And this occasion was almost no exception to that. I say almost because there was much confusion amongst the ‘Ecclesnuts’ – as many of his fans term themselves - as to whether going to this event would be a guarantee that you’d see him perform. Somebody ‘starring’ in a show usually means that all audience members get to see them – unless sadly they damage their backs like David Tennant managed during Hamlet and Love’s Labours Lost for the RSC so missing enough performances in London for him NOT to get nominated for any of the theatrical awards that year – criminal in my humble opinion. Given that each group was being lead around by one of ‘the country's most exciting established or emerging actors’ that would indicate that you wouldn’t be lead round by the others leading other groups – and the readings by an ensemble of performers – would he be amongst those or not?!

Plus I had a pre-arranged ‘date’ with Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature and Beneditch Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein at a screening of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle that same night – another NTLive event. Following excellent public reviews – and a personal one from one of you who knows who they are ;)! – I was very keen to see that. So would I deprive myself from seeing the superbly sensitive, intelligent and interesting interpretation of Frankenstein’s Creature by Jonny or take a risk that I MIGHT get to see Christopher read a bit of the bible to me or even better guide me round Westminster Abbey?!

Okay yes I took the risk on YKW!! BUT I was also highly fortunate that the NT screening was getting repeated on the Saturday and so I got to see it with the very person who has personally recommended it to me. Fantastic! Jonny’s performance was well worth it and Benedict did a great job too though the rest was a bit bland somehow. Anyways…

I arrived at Westminster Abbey several hours – well in fact 4 – early as is my way with these things if I can, giving myself time to suss out where things are and how things work and can I make sure I find my way to all the necessary points – without guidance – for the evening – also giving in to that fear I have of being late so I make sure I’m very early! That said was also meeting a friend in advance – again you know who you are ;) – to have something to eat and catch up before the ‘show’ – so was giving ourselves a good 2 hours for that – and then plenty of time to get back to Abbey so that we’d be there extra early just in case!

So how did the finding things go? Well I’d printed out google map instructions for the necessary journeys – Westminster tube to Westminster Abbey (okay how many of you are laughing at me right now? – yes the abbey is very big and yes you can’t miss it but still I am VERY directionally challenged) – Abbey to restaurant and written down instructions on how to get to the Great North Door which was ‘stage door’ for the night. Well actually the stage door may actually have been the West Door but the North one was our entrance for the night. I found it fine – as confirmed by a man who was waiting there already for his much earlier performance of the show - and sat down to wait a bit, but then thought I should see if I could find the restaurant in advance – you know just in case it took me and friend hours to find?! Oh dear! So I did so and found part of the way – but really I shouldn’t have done that. My lower limbs were already struggling a bit – from disability and I was predicting they might get even worse from nervous excitement later - and I knew we’d have 40 minutes walk around the Abbey.

Time passed…

Had a lovely meal but I couldn’t eat very much – ‘Ecclesangst’ had started to hit – and I was also starting to struggle to be fully present.

We got back to the Abbey and you already know part of the story now from my ‘public’ view.

So I will now tell you the parts that feel far more personal to me J

Our group’s guide was a young lady called Morven Christe:

I liked her as a guide and as a person. She was a sweetie - played her role well - was considerate - enthusiastic - knowledgeable beyond the text she had in her arms and she created interest and enjoyment. Not that what we were seeing and hearing wasn’t those things in any case but she added to it for me. I believed her! One of the crucial aspects for a performance to work J

Incidentally the text I refer to was the ‘play’ as written by Nick Payne with extracts from the KJV. We were given a copy at the end, which was a good job given my increasing lack of presence due to pain – legs really struggled even with use of stick etc – and anxiety/excitement about whether Christopher would appear at each next ‘stop’ – the longer it went on the harder it was for me to go on but I did and I’m so pleased I did! Morven did ask me a few times if I was okay and if she could help me up stairs etc. I replied I was fine with the banisters and then had friend help me at points when there weren’t any! It’s funny – as many of you know I am usually kind of anxious before a performance – I get nervous for the actors as well as myself in a strange way! – but usually I know I’ll be fine as I’m sitting in a theatre seat and all I have to do is watch and listen. This was very different!

Back to the text – it contained the history and stories associated with each stop we had and then the carefully selected – by The Revd Dr James Hawkey – readings from the Bible.
We started at The High Altar where all sovereigns since 1066 have been crowned and in front of which is the Cosmati pavement, on which is depicted the entire history of the Universe including its date of demise – happily maybe that has eroded away! We had to be very careful to stand on the top stair up to the altar but not on the pavement itself and I was a little anxious I might fall backwards – not trusting my balance these days! Morven read the first reading to us; Revelation 1:4-18.
Michelle Terry’s reading from John 15: 1-14 by the tomb of the unknown soldier was watery-eye inducing. Sharon Small’s sparkling reading of the title piece from Genesis matched The Quire Screen,  with its little archway with stars on the ceiling.

We had Andrew Woodall by the tombs of Newton and Darwin. I stood on Newton’s tomb and then started moving off it when Morven pointed it out but she said it was fine – he wouldn’t mind! Andrew’s performance was very good – he maintained excellent eye contact while continuing to read and stayed ‘in character’ throughout. For other readings we had Jamie Ballard, Jonathan Coy and we think Emmy Sainsbury.

Building towards my personal highlight of the night we had Morven and Nonso Anozie perform Job 3 and Job 38 with Morven as Job and Nonso as the LORD! For me kind of a sexy, scary God! This performance was in the Chapter House, billed as one of the most ‘acoustically rousing and thrilling locations’ in the whole abbey. It certainly was and we experienced their voices echo all around us in the deliverence of such powerful verse on humanity and complexity and why we suffer. Highly memorable! Nonso’s voice and himself – so much so that I recognised him on the tube two days later – I think I looked at him a little too long in making sure it was him – he turned away! Hope I didn’t scare him back!

Somewhere along the tour we had to wait a while as the group in front had not finished. At the time we were near many memorial plaques, including one to Jane Austen amongst many, many other well-knowns. Another guide teased Morven about Austen being her favourite author. At the time I didn’t realise why but googling her afterwards she played Jane Bennet in Lost in Austen.

In the Lady Chapel we heard another beautiful reading from Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’ compassion for women. Unfortunately I am not sure who read that! May have been Emmy Sainsbury or Miranda Raison. Very lovely in any case!

And then in the Chapel of St John the Baptist Tamsin Greig was the performer patiently waiting for us. She told us she was going to read us a love poem and that she wouldn’t make eye contact. I think the latter was a joke – and perhaps aimed at the men in our group. During her excellent, emotive and expressive reading of Song of Solomon 2 I kept my eyes on her and we had several moments of eye contact with kind of a cheeky glint in those eyes at points!  I really enjoyed her reading and felt very connected to the words and to her.

And so on we went past tombs of monarchs such as Henry V and Edward The Confessor, and many different chapels all decorated differently and all awe inspiring in their own ways. And the incredible magnificence of the whole building! It felt marvelous to be in there… and at times pretty cold too!

We were almost at the end of the tour… I was still hopeful that maybe HE would be the climax…

Morven took us into the Jerusalem Chamber, where the final edit of the King James Bible took place and in which a group of fifty or more scholars assembled and read their whole bible aloud from start to finish before its publication.

As she was telling us this we thought we heard the voice of a man outside the door…

Morven read Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 to us:
“ To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…”

…and that was the end of the tour…

Not my season for Christopher Eccleston on this occasion and not the time to fulfill my next purpose with him! ;) ;)

The End of the Word.

Afterword: I am extremely pleased that a desire to experience an intimate performance by my favourite actor – oh my goodness the eye contact! - lead me to this extraordinary theatrical endeavour and even though I was in physical agony afterwards - so much that I could hardly walk back to mine - and was experiencing disappointment, I was blown away by a kind of spiritual power and exchange with those performers and the words of that text in that abbey that - even though I don’t believe in the Christian God as such - felt like a celebration of what I consider as my God of deep, connected, expressive humanity and theatrical performance!

In The Beginning – Review by The Restricted Reviewer © 2011  

Twitter: @RestrictReview