Laughs, guffaws and tears

It may be summer (well, some of the time) but it’s rarely too warm to enjoy going to the theatre. In fact, these days, the air conditioning is often so efficient that it’s advisable to take an extra garment with you to protect those sunburnt shoulders against the icy breeze.

Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine and Indira Varma as Liz (c) Manuel HarlanAndrew Scott as Garry Essendine and Indira Varma as Liz ©Manuel Harlan

It was still no more than pleasantly warm when the revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter opened at the Old Vic last week. Warmth – and sometimes blistering heat – radiated from the stage, however. Matthew Warchus’s production has it all, notably a stunning performance by Andrew Scott who follows Fleabag’s hot priest with Garry Essendine, a self-involved, attention-seeking actor who is – in Scott’s hands – also vulnerable and even lovable. And very funny. The whole thing is slick and speedy without ever losing its heart. Indira Varma as Essendine’s not-quite-estranged wife Liz is sharp, witty but still soft-centred, Sophie Thompson, as long-suffering assistant Monica can make the most mundane line sizzle and the gender change (Garry has a swift affair with Joe rather than Joanna) works a treat. Underneath the frenetic fun there is a constant sense that loneliness could envelope even the most successful at a moment’s notice; it is no accident that the play’s original title, Sweet Sorrow, is included on the cover of the programme. The set and costume design, by Rob Howell, is perfect. In fact, I wish someone would immediately replicate Indira Varma’s gorgeously elegant but casual wardrobe for the high street. This looks like an award-winning production if ever there was one. Until August 10th.

Kevork Malikyan as Sava and Ron Cook as Fret (c) Marc BrennerKevork Malikyan as Sava and Ron Cook as Fret ©Marc Brenner

Meanwhile, at the Donmar, David Greig’s Europe appears – sadly – up-to-date. In fact, Michael Longhurst has kicked off his new regime as artistic director with his own production of a play first performed at the Traverse in Edinburgh in 1994, but so much about it still resonates now. The setting is a station on a nameless border, newly redundant as the trains no longer stop there. Two refugees, a young woman and an older man (Natalia Tena and Kevork Malikyan), scruffy, depressed but resolute, set up camp, forever in transit but with nowhere to go. The stationmaster (Ron Cook, excellent as ever) first reacts with a jobsworth’s lack of sympathy and tries to move them on, but a friendship develops between him and the man, also once a railwayman. An incipient love story develops between the young woman and the stationmaster’s female assistant (Faye Marsay) who dreams of exchanging her workaday marriage for the freedom of travel.

There is genuine tension as the locals, short of jobs and prospects, blame the incomers and turn, inevitably, to violence. It is all acted with conviction and beautifully staged as trains seem to rush past feet away and, in the last few minutes, there’s a spectacular coup de theatre. Longhurst has begun his tenure with a well-chosen, horribly relevant production. Until August 10th.

The latest A Midsummer Night’s Dream to open in London (between the enjoyable bed-jumping, promenading one at the Bridge and that to come in Regent’s Park) is a gaudy, vulgar, unsubtle concoction at the Globe. It is also, however, jam-packed with imagination, visual gags and just plain no-holds-barred fun. It is so over-the-top bonkers that ordinary critical terms do not apply; try as you might to ask how deep they’ve buried the magical romantic comedy you can see shining somewhere beneath the raucous, riotous, audience-involving farce on (and sometimes off) stage, you’d be a curmudgeon if you didn’t end up clapping along to the lively combo (members of the Hackney Colliery Band playing music by Jim Fortune) in Sean Holmes’ helter-skelter production.

Victoria Elliott as Titania in her flowery bed (c) Tristram KentonVictoria Elliott as Titania in her flowery bed ©Tristram Kenton

 Theseus (Peter Bourke) bustles in a shocking-pink Fascist-style uniform. Hippolyta (Victoria Elliott) is a captive not keen to be wooed, whose brass breastplate is draped in an unlikely pastel duster coat, while the lovers are in black-and-white space-age outfits with ruffs on their shoulders. The fairies, done up like clowns crossed with inverted multicoloured giant ice-cream cones topped with Cyclops eyes (there is no end to designer Jean Chan’s imagination), match the feathery rainbow-coloured “leaves” of the forest. Oberon (Peter Bourke again) seems to be wearing a gilded Indian-inspired chair as part of his costume. A shining mountain covered in trinkets, sparkles and feathers, never has his line “I am invisible” seemed so risible.

Some of the choices are startlingly unexpected: Starveling is plucked from the audience, an emigré from the boring world of jeans and beige who (on press night) gallantly allowed himself to be pushed around, ending as Moon pedalling a glittering bike. And there are multiple Pucks, a ploy which only works because this is, above all, a brilliantly integrated ensemble. The acting of individuals is terrific too, always drawing in a willing audience on a comedic high. Jocelyn Jee Esien as a naughty Bottom and Amanda Wilkin as a rebellious Helena are perhaps outstanding, but this really is a joint effort. If you need cheering up – and who doesn’t? – go! In rep until October 13th.

And if you can’t get to London, perhaps the Globe is coming to you. Another ensemble – only eight of them – working like clockwork, is on the road with Pericles, Twelfth Night and a very funny Comedy of Errors. This talented little group can turn when necessary into a band or a tuneful choir. Venues remaining: Pontio Arts Centre Bangor, Brighton Open Air Theatre, St James Guernsey, Bodleian Library Oxford and, beyond these shores, Art Carnuntum Austria, Akershus Fortress Oslo, Victoria Theatre Singapore, and the Academy for Performing Arts Hong Kong.

June 14th would have been Sam Wanamaker’s hundredth birthday. Although the indefatigable American founder of Shakespeare’s Globe died in 1993, before the building was complete, he is still remembered daily, not least in the name of the jewel-like Jacobean theatre on the site. But before he began his long campaign to reconstruct a version of Shakespeare’s most famous playhouse, he had a distinguished career as a director, producer and actor on stage and screen. Diana Devlin’s beautifully achieved new biography celebrates the whole career of this giant of American and British arts.  Sam Wanamaker: A Global Performer is published by Oberon Books. Holiday reading sorted!








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