Review: Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre

Imagine for a moment what would happen if Albert Einstein met Marilyn Monroe. And then imagine their spirited discussion about the theory of relativity being interrupted by first Joe DiMaggio, who hasn’t seen his wife for two weeks and wants her to come home, and then Senator Joseph McCarthy, who’s trying to drag Einstein to an un-American Activities Committee hearing.

Having trouble? Well then get yourself along to the Arcola, where Terry Johnson’s Insignificance imagines it for you. Directed by David Mercatali, the result is an enjoyably (and perhaps predictably) bizarre encounter that begins as a comedy but ends up in significantly darker territory. Written in 1982, it’s a play that seems to be about a lot of things, much of which a 21st century audience can still relate to – among them the downsides of fame, the threat of nuclear war and the stereotyping of women.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Simon Rouse’s Professor and Alice Bailey Johnson’s Actress (none of the characters are referred to by their names, although the script, costumes and performances leave us in no doubt who we’re looking at) find a surprising connection when she bursts into his Manhattan hotel room eager to meet him and prove she understands the theory of relativity. As someone whose scientific knowledge is limited to say the least, I don’t mind admitting I got totally lost during her increasingly enthusiastic recital – not helped by the fact it’s delivered at the speed of light – but that doesn’t prevent it being the defining moment of the play. You can’t help but cheer a little bit to see Marilyn shrug off her dumb blonde persona and take on one of the brainiest men on the planet… and then again when she takes down the infinitely easier target that is her abrasive, gum-popping husband with a series of withering retorts.

At the root of this triumphant moment, though, is a deep sadness that only grows as the play goes on. The Actress desperately wants to be taken seriously, but is constantly thwarted by the image she’s created for herself. Similarly, the mild-mannered Professor just wants to sit and quietly work out the shape of space, but is pursued by the expectations of others, and the use to which his name and work could be put, should he allow them to be. Each has grown used to the world knowing them only by their public persona, which is why this odd pair make a strange kind of sense – certainly more so than the Actress and the Ball Player, who don’t seem to get each other at all. Joe DiMaggio, played with swagger and just a hint of appealing vulnerability by Oliver Hembrough, is fine with people seeing him exactly as he is, just as long as they still see him… which is probably why the suggestion that he’s merely a creation dreamed up by Tom Mannion’s malicious Senator riles him so badly.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Though rooted in troubling subject matter, Johnson’s script is full of witty one-liners, from inside jokes about Schrödinger’s cat and Arthur Miller to more universal gags, most at the expense of the less intellectually blessed characters. In between the four of them talk at length about various topics, from the scientific to the political to the domestic, in a production that tails off to a vaguely unsatisfactory conclusion – so much so that we end up wondering if the bizarre events of the night happened at all.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Insignificance, not least the strong performances from four actors seemingly unfazed by the pressure of playing real – and in at least two cases, iconic – historical figures. The Professor and the Actress might not succeed in teaching us much science, but their imagined encounter does pose some interesting questions about the self-defeating nature of celebrity. It’s a bit of a slow burner on the night, but this is the kind of play that stays in your mind, throwing up more ideas and discussions the longer you think about it. Well worth a visit, if only for the thrill of witnessing such an unlikely meeting of minds.

Insignificance is at the Arcola Theatre until 18th November.

Review: Evita at the Orchard Theatre

Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to realise how long the shows I grew up with have been around (which in turn makes me feel old… but let’s not go there). While Evita – written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in 1976 and first performed in the West End two years later – isn’t one I saw on stage until my 20s, I do remember watching the movie version starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas all the way back in 1996. Back then I didn’t necessarily follow all the political context of the story, but I loved the music and was fascinated by the rags to riches tale of a teenage girl from a rural town, who rose to become First Lady of Argentina and “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” – only to die from cancer at the age of just 33.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Now Evita is back on tour, and bringing the story of Eva Perón, second wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón, to a new generation. Starring Wicked‘s Emma Hatton and Italian actor Gian Marco Schiaretti – who recently played Tarzan in Stuttgart – this lavish production from Bill Kenwright is both entertaining and educational, a love story with added politics, and a great deal of style. And whether or not you follow all the ins and outs of Argentine history, it’s a fascinating insight into how a celebrity with no knowledge of politics can power their way to the top by sheer determination. Which makes you wonder if we’ll all be watching an equally tragic – for different reasons – show about Trump in 40 years’ time (if so may I suggest a working title of Covfefe: The Musical).

Not entirely surprisingly, West End star Emma Hatton gives a commanding and vocally flawless performance, just as much when Eva’s crumpled on the ground in the last days of her life as when she’s at the height of her power, performing the show-stopping Don’t Cry For Me Argentina to an adoring crowd. Alongside her, relative newcomer Gian Marco Schiaretti more than holds his own as the omnipresent Che, hitting just the right mix of Latin charm, arrogance and helplessness – and some impressive, not to mention unexpected, high notes. The two have excellent support from Kevin Stephen-Jones as Perón, Oscar Balmaseda as Eva’s first lover (and ticket to the big city) Magaldi, and Sarah O’Connor as the unnamed Mistress, a seemingly minor character who nonetheless wows the crowd with one of the show’s best-known numbers, Another Suitcase in Another Hall.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

With Bill Deamer’s lively choreography that takes inspiration both from the Latin American setting and the oppressive atmosphere of a military dictatorship, and an imposing set designed by Matthew Wright, Evita transports us to 1940s Argentina in a dazzling and fast-moving spectacle that only begins to slow down when its protagonist does. 40 years old the show may be, but the passion and energy of this production prove there’s plenty of life in Evita yet.

Evita is at the Orchard Theatre until 3rd June then continuing on tour.

Interview: Sean Brosnan, Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness

Written by Ron Hutchinson back in 2001, Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness is a black comedy about the downfall of George Bryan Brummell, known as The Beau. This week the play returns to London for the first time in 15 years, opening tomorrow at Jermyn Street Theatre, just a couple of blocks away from Brummell’s commemorative statue.

Photo credit: Emily Hyland
Photo credit: Emily Hyland

So who was Beau Brummell? “The play is a fascinating and amusing insight into the world of ‘celebrities’, featuring the original dandy, wit and revolutionary Beau Brummell,” explains Sean Brosnan, who plays him. “Brummell was in many ways a self made man. He seized opportunities where he could and without concern for the consequences. In fact the more he could pique someone with a barbed comment, the happier he was.

“He bucked the trend in fashion and his influence reigns today in the tailored suit. Without him we may all be flouncing around in overly flamboyant colours and fabrics. Imagine a world of Grayson Perry. Today’s equivalent I would say is a cross between David Beckham for style, Kim Kardashian for fame for fame’s sake, and Stephen Fry for biting wit. Imagine that if you will!”

Set in the winter of 1819, the play finds Brummell living in exile in a madhouse in Calais. He’s convinced his old friend King George IV will come and see him on his visit to Calais – but his valet has other plans. “Beau Brummell has so many facets to his character; joy at his past glory, despair at his current situation and a fascinating, complex relationship with his valet, played with great skill and panache by Richard Latham,” says Sean. “Brummell was unique and playing him at this stage of his life, when he is facing desperate reality but also believing his former glory will be restored, is a challenge and a delight.”

Jermyn Street Theatre, in the fashionable St James’s district, is an appropriate home for the production: “Jermyn Street was at the heart of Brummell’s world. He lived close by and bought his wine at Berry Brothers in St. James Street. With his statue at the end of Piccadilly Arcade he must surely be looking down on us with pride. He has not been forgotten. Playing him here is very special.”

Photo credit: Emily Hyland
Photo credit: Emily Hyland

Although the play’s set nearly 200 years ago, the story of Beau Brummell remains hugely relevant in today’s celebrity-obsessed world. “Brummell was the most famous man of his day and yet is now largely forgotten. Like Oscar Wilde, he had a spectacular fall from grace,” says Sean. “Even today, one mistake in the public eye, be it ever so small, can bring the media’s wrath and vilification. If you’re famous, watch out. They’re out to get you!”

Sean hopes the play will help bring Brummell’s story to audiences who may never have heard of him. “It’s a play that manages to balance the regency farce of Blackadder III with the grandeur of King Lear and has been called ‘Waiting for Godot for the fashion conscious!’ If our audiences leave feeling they understand a little more about the madness and brilliance of Beau and have had a good chuckle along the way, then I will be delighted.”

Beau Brummell – An Elegant Madness is at Jermyn Street Theatre from 13th February to 11th March.

Review: Shakespeare Tonight at Theatro Technis

Shakespeare Tonight imagines what would happen if the Bard lived in the era of social media and TV chat shows. And indeed, the man himself is about to appear on one of these shows for the very first time. In a coup for producer Rebekah, one of the most famous men on the planet will be talking live in the studio to bubbly host Martina Fleur about his latest play, Hamlet, which has just opened to mixed reviews.

In a twist, though, Shakespeare won’t be the only guest on the show; he’ll be joined by arch rival Sir Francis Bacon, who – unlike William – is no stranger to the TV cameras. As the flamboyant, smirking Bacon makes himself at home on Martina’s sofa, and Shakespeare does his best to look cool and collected, the stage is set for a spectacular showdown between two great literary minds.

Shakespeare Tonight

There’s lots to enjoy about Shakespeare Tonight; the script, by Paul Wilson and Tim Ferguson is witty, wordy and packed with so many references it almost warrants a return visit to try and catch them all. The only downside to this is that anyone not interested in Shakespeare may get a bit lost (but then again, it’s unlikely they’d go and see a play called Shakespeare Tonight, so moving on…).

The addition of modern culture into the mix is also good fun, tweets from the audience presented with cheeky and irreverent charm by Martina’s warm up and social media guy, the Duke, played by an extremely likeable Paul Obertelli. Francesca Mepham, in contrast, is decidedly unlikeable in her brief but memorable appearance as the sneering bully Rebekah, who’s happy to exploit both host and guests to bring in the viewers and secure a second series. And Kaara Benstead impresses in an even more fleeting yet highly significant role, bringing the show to an emotional end as Shakespeare’s estranged wife, Anne Hathaway.

The main bulk of the show is carried by Priscilla Fere as Martina, Garry Voss as Bacon and Peter Revel-Walsh as Shakespeare, and while there’s clearly no shortage of talent on stage, unfortunately their scenes also expose some flaws in the production. Issues with acoustics mean that much of the script gets lost as actors turn away from the audience, while a few fluffed lines lead to awkward silences that interrupt the flow of the conversation and leave everyone – on stage and off – feeling a bit tense and anxious.

Part of the problem is a lack of context; though I’m not usually an advocate of canned laughter, the studio setting could perhaps benefit from some sound effects to remind us where we are and how the spectators in the room are reacting. (It seems unlikely, for instance, that Jeremy Kyle’s audience would remain silent when one guest is threatening another with a dagger.) It is made clear from the outset that we’re supposed to be the studio audience – but aside from a few occasions when the Duke invites us to applaud, we’re given little indication of what’s expected of us or how involved we’re supposed to get.

This show clearly has a lot of potential, and will I’m sure deliver on its early promise as its week-long run at Theatro Technis continues, and later in the month when it travels to Edinburgh. With an experienced director in David Parry and an undoubtedly talented cast, the problems encountered last night are all very fixable, and shouldn’t detract from what is still an enjoyable evening.

Shakespeare Tonight is at Theatro Technis until 6th August and then Paradise in Augustines from 22nd-27th August.