Friday, 31 January 2014

Happy Days at the Young Vic

Happy Days

photo credit Johan Persson

ANYONE permanently buried up to their waist and then neck in sand and gravel would have to have a cheery disposition to survive and not sink into madness.
And yet this almost impossibly sounding scenario is played out in Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days, a new production of which is now on at the Young Vic.
Set in blazing sunshine on a rocky and constantly eroding escarpment which juts out into the auditorium, it sees actress Juliet Stevenson as Winnie, a woman with a ridiculously sunny outlook trapped from the waist down.
It is essentially a one-woman show with Winnie babbling on, reminiscing about her life and taking comfort in her daily routines which include saying a few prayers, wondering whether it is the right time to sing her song or put up her umbrella and counting her blessings.
Also important to her sanity is a dusty black bag and its contents which is just within arms length.
During the course of the play, everything gets taken out of the bag and is meticulously placed in front of her which she then studies in great detail.
In between all this she periodically calls out to her very detached husband Willie to make sure he is still there and within earshot.
Willie, played by David Beames, is not often seen by either the audience or Winnie and is only occasionally heard, and spends most of his time in a hole near where Winnie is trapped.
And if things look bleak for Winnie in the first half, after a landslide of pebbles the second half sees her buried up to her neck making it almost too harrowing to watch.
It is a story of mind over matter and one woman's battle to survive against all the odds and Juliet Stevenson gives a truly mesmerising performance.

Happy Days is on at the Young Vic until March 8. Tickets from £10. Call the box office on 020 7922 2922.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Interview with actor Tam Williams

IN 2012, actor Tam Williams spent eight months hurdling across the stage as Lord Andrew Lindsey in a West End production of Chariots of Fire.This year the Wimbledon-based actor has swapped athletics for murder-mystery, starring in Strangers On A Train, on at Gielgud Theatre in central London, and he says he is grateful for the slightly less strenuous part.
"The hurdling was intense," he laughs. "I am fairly fit and like running - I've got four kids who keep me fit and on my toes - but I had to spend five weeks training down at Wimbledon Athletic track for the role including clearing the hurdles with glasses of champagne balanced on them.
"It was good fun though and was a wonderful play to be in especially with the Olympics being on at the same time and being able to celebrate Britain's success.
"The whole theatre was gutted to put the athletic track down and during the entire run I went over 7,500 hurdles and didn't knock one down which was fantastic," he beams proudly.
"But it did give me a hernia!"
We speak as Tam is juggling family life with learning his script for Strangers On A Train in which he plays Frank Myers.
"My wife and I have four kids so life is always full on," he says. "But it's brilliant and we live in a lovely part of London which is the perfect place to bring up children.
"I love the fact I can be around to help them with their schoolwork - which is what I'm doing at the moment with my eldest before I go up for the show!
"Strangers On A Train a really technical play and I have never been involved in something like this before but I'm absolutely loving it.
"It's based on the novel and has the most incredible set I have ever seen. It's all monochrome and is amazingly atmospheric.
"It's a bit like a film in the way it's staged with short, sharp scenes that build to this incredible climax. It's brilliant."
For those who have not read the original book by Patricia Highsmith or seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version, the story concerns two men, young tennis player Guy Haines, and charming psychopath Bruno Anthony, who have a chance meeting on a train.
Bruno wants rid of his father and Guy wants to divorce his wife so he can marry someone else. It gives Bruno the idea for the perfect murder - Guy murders Bruno's father and Bruno murders Guy's wife.
However, after Guy's wife is killed, things don't go according to plan.
"One of the men is hampered by a controlling father and the other doesn't like his wife. It's a crazy drunken conversation between the two which has dreadful consequences," says Tam.
"Myers is a friend and work colleague of Guy's and starts to notice things aren't quite right with Guy. It's fantastically written and it's quite gripping - even if you've seen the film, the way it's staged here is great."
The part appealed to Tam, not least because of his love of theatre but also because he gets to work with his friend, the actor Laurence Fox
"Laurence is Guy and it's fantastic to work with him. He is terribly nice. We both come from acting families and have known each other for years so we have a kindred spirit.
"But the whole cast is great and are people I've admired for years so to get to work with them is amazing."
But despite his family background and having grown up on film sets and theatres around the world, Tam says he never really considered acting as a profession until he got a place at drama school.
"It was never part of my plan but I didn't do very well at school although I had a music scholarship. I got a place at Guildford School of Acting and had a really inspiring teacher but it wasn't until I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company and worked with director Katie Mitchell that I knew this was the life for me."
Since then Tam has worked extensively in both TV and film but it's theatre where his heart lies and speaking to him it's clear he has a real passion and enthusiasm for his craft which is infectious.
"As an actor you are never really in control of your own destiny," he says. "But I have been very lucky because I've worked with some incredible people over the years.
"Most memorably I worked with Dame Judi Dench in a Peter Hall production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston in 2010.
"I played Lysander and she was Titania. Some people wait their whole career to work with a legend and I would have paid to do that job! She was just wonderful and very generous."
But now his focus is firmly on the production in hand.
"It's a lovely job to have especially over the Christmas period - there's tension, intrigue and it's very stylish and I'm thrilled to be part of it. I hope the audiences who have seen the film will feel we've done it justice."

Strangers On A Train is on at the Gielgud Theatre, until February 22.

Tickets cost from £17.50. Call the box office on 0844 482 5130 or visit

Pardoner's Tale - one day left!

Pardoner's Tale - Unicorn Theatre

BRINGING an ancient story to a young and very 21st century audience is not for the fainthearted.
But Tangere Arts is to be totally commended for its take on The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, now on at the Unicorn Theatre.
Although written about 600 years ago, The Pardoner's Tale, which was once told at the Tabard Inn, just a stone’s throw away from the Tooley Street theatre, has been given a new lease of life and brought bang up to date by the company.
It features actor Gary Lagden and two musicians and foley artists, Hannah Marshall and Christoper Preece, who between them tell the prologue and the tale in all its fantastic detail.
They come onto the stage wearing hooded robes, wafting incense and singing in Latin which all adds to the atmosphere.
For the next hour we learn who and what a pardoner was - a conman who for a price sold so-called pardons which would excuse your sins, including not doing your homework, and guarantee your place in heaven rather than hell - and listened to his tale involving all the seven deadly sins.
Along the way he delights and sometimes scares the mainly young audience with jokes, pardons, music and song to help tell his story.
His tale involves three drunken layabouts who encounter an old man as they set out to try and kill Death. The old man says they will find him under a nearby tree. However, when they arrive they discover a hoard of gold and decide to split it three ways.
But they get greedy and this greed inevitably gets the better of them - and Gary delights in telling it in all its gory detail, brilliantly taking on the personna of all the characters.
It was a fantastic production, beautifully and imaginatively told which captured and retained the audience throughout the whole hour.

The Pardoner's Tale is on at the Unicorn Theatre in Tooley Street until January 31. Tickets cost £16 for adults and £13 concessions. Call the box office on 020 7645 0560.

Blurred Lines - The Shed

Blurred Lines

AN exploration of gender inequality may sound a bit heavy as a piece of drama but an adaptation of The Equality Illusion by feminist activist Kat Banyard now on at the Shed focusing on this important issue is well worth seeing.
Named after Robin Thicke's controversial number one hit single, Blurred Lines features a cast of eight women who explore through a series of vignettes what gender inequality is and how manifest it is in our society.
It is has been created by the cast, writer Nick Payne and director Carrie Cracknell and certainly packs a punch.
The set is a vertiginous staircase which the women use to tell their stories - both verbally and physically. These stories are hard hitting, serious, and obvious - full of stereotypes, domestic abuse and workplace inequality.
The vignettes are many and varied and are beautifully played out. Highlights include Sinead Matthews and Susannah Wise in a scene in which a girl is attacked by a hooded figure. They do the scene three times and each time the girl is dressed more provocatively.
Claire Skinner as a working mum who is asked by her nightmare boss, Bryony Hannah, how she is coping with work now she is a mum with vomit on her top.
And Michaela Coel, first as an eager, fresh faced young black actress, desperate to please and promising to do anything in a bid to get a part, and then later as a 17-year-old who is raped by her boyfriend. She asks: "When did it become something he did to me?"
Throughout, there is a peppering of musical numbers including Don't Liberate Me by Tammy Wynette, The Crystals' He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss) and Do What U Want by Lady Gaga. What they are not allowed to play is Blurred Lines, the song which gives the piece its name.
At times harrowing, at others funny, sad, poignant and hard hitting, it is a fantastic piece of theatre. The writing is sharp and manages to seamlessly interweave the stories and songs and prove if ever it were needed that despite recent history, there is no gender equality and ugly stereotypes still exist.

Blurred Lines is on at the Shed until February 22. Tickets from £12. Call the box office on 020 7452 3244.

IMAGINE Children's Festival Southbank Centre

FOR the second year running, children are in charge of the running of an annual south London arts festival.
Now in its 13th year, the Imagine Children's Festival will take over the Southbank Centre for two weeks over half term. It will be transformed by children for children and will host the top names in children's literature, dance, theatre and art.
This year it is bigger and better than ever with more than 100 free and ticketed events across the whole site.
It will be a chance for children of all ages, their families and schools to immerse themselves in literature, the creative arts, theatre and workshops.
The programme ranges from literature to jazz, site-specific theatre to poetry, visual arts and classical music and boasts a stellar line up including Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Quentin Blake, Francesca Simon and Catherine Bennett.
At the heart of Imagine is the idea to create a festival for children, made by children.
A group of children from local schools are shaping the programme and will infuse the festival with their creativity and ideas.
The popular Kids Takeover will see children managing the day-to-day running of the festival, selling programmes, assisting light technicians, making tannoy announcements and ensuring shows start on time.
Highlights include a special sleepover on the iconic Royal Festival Hall stage, events with leading authors and illustrators including Jacqueline Wilson, Francesca Simon and Patrick Ness and theatre highlights for all ages from Tube, suitable for those aged 6 months to two-years-old, Captain Flynn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, for those aged four and above, to Bryony Kimming’s That Catherine Bennett Show, challenging today’s role models for eight-year-old girls.
There will also be three special Dressing Up Days where visitors are encouraged to dig into dressing up boxes and come to the Festival wearing their finest themed costumes.
One of the days is the Great Enormo Theme Park Day which is an amazing new theme park that allows its visitors to travel through time on fantastically fun rides.
Visitors can come as a cowboy, spaceman, pirate, sailor or wasp and be one of the characters they might encounter on the journey.
As well as the programmed events every day during the event there will be Voicelab, storytelling and have-a-go workships, creative craft and writing workshops.

The Imagine Children's Festival starts on February 10 and runs until February 24.

Visit for full listings.

Being a Man - Southbank Centre Festival

WE are all used to events, awards, seminars, workshops, books and other activities and literature to engage women and promote and discuss the issues they face.
But what's it like for a man?
To find out, Southbank Centre (SBC) is launching a new festival, Being A Man which kicks off today (January 31).
Running until Sunday, men from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and experiences and of all ages are invited to the festival which takes place across the SBC site to explore what it means to be a man today.
Being A Man has been put together in consultation with more than 250 men who over the last few months have taken part in 'think-ins' to share ideas and different areas of interest.
The programme is many and varied, and aims to cover as broad a spectrum of subjects as possible - including fatherhood, gang culture and porn addiction, why, and whether, men like gaming, cars and football.
It will feature Q&A sessions, talks, keynotes and presentations, in addition to film screenings, music and performances, including Zachary Oberzan’s Your Brother.Remember?.
Jude Kelly, SBC's artistic director said: "I'm aware that men are subject to a great deal of often critical discussion about their role in modern society.
"I'm struck by how many male friends compare the statement 'it's a man's world' with how much individual power they do or don't feel in their own lives, and also how peer group pressure and social expectation make some men feel trapped and confused about appropriate ways to behave, yet there doesn’t seem to be a mainstream platform to discuss these things openly.
"Being A Man festival is intended to provide this platform for conversations on how men’s roles are evolving in the 21st century.
"It's an opportunity, amidst all the debate about men, for men themselves to come together to share stories, discuss the pleasures and challenges of being men, and look at what kind of world they want for themselves and others."
Kicking off the festival today will be Ziauddin Yousafzai, whose daughter Malala Yousafai was shot by the Taliban, talking to Ms Kelly about the kind of education boys would have in an ideal world.
The day will also feature journalist Jon Snow discussing fatherhood as well as talks, seminars and debates on topics including young male offenders, gang culture and suicide rates, to the loss of traditional male jobs, stress in the city and whether the education system is failing boys.
Other well known faces such as Billy Bragg, Larry Harvey of Burning Man, Nick Hornby, Akala, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Michael Kaufman of White Ribbon Campaign, Baaba Maal, Grayson Perry and Simon Armitage will also be taking part in the various discussions and debates throughout the weekend.
Jon Snow, said: "It sure is time to talk about men: men and change; men and women; and why many men fear both change and women!”
Akala, rapper and poet, added: "The Being a Man Festival offers chance to put to bed some myths, take men to task, and celebrate without gloating one half - almost - of the human species."

Being A Man runs from today until Sunday, February 2. Visit for full listings and to book tickets or call the box office on 0844 847 9944.

King Lear, National Theatre


Photo credit: Mark Douet

 Simon Russell Beale – King Lear, Adrian Scarborough - The Fool

Adrian Scarborough - The Fool

Anna Maxwell Martin – Regan, Simon Russell Beale – King Lear

Kate Fleetwood – Goneril, Anna Maxwell Martin – Regan, Simon Russell Beale – King Lear

Kate Fleetwood – Goneril, Anna Maxwell Martin – Regan

Kate Fleetwood – Goneril, Sam Troughton - Edmund

THEY say power corrupts and in Sam Mendes' terrific production of King Lear at the National's Olivier stage, this can be seen very clearly.
The central themes of the play - love, power, greed, control and madness - are brilliantly conveyed in this production which has been brought up to date by giving it a modern day setting.
Set against a granite coloured backdrop with dark clouds racing across a grey sky it starts with a bang as Lear marches into his enormous room with a huge entourage, to divide up his Kingdom.
Sitting with his back to the audience he addresses his three daughters, speaking into a microphone, and asks how much they love him.
Goneril and Regan oblige by telling him what he wants to hear but the youngest, his favourite Cordelia, is having none of it and refuses to tow the line.
As Lear rages against her, overturning the huge tables, it marks the disintegration of the state, family, loyalties, friendships and Lear's mind - something which he can see only too well.
Simon Russell Beale is mesmerising as the dictator King, a shaven-headed control freak, desperate for affirmation from all those around him and yet knowing he is slipping into the cruel world of dementia.
For a man of short stature he gives a towering performance moving seamlessly from a tyrant of a man who bullies and rebukes anyone and everyone to one who is so vulnerable and knows not what he is doing, much less what is going on around him.
This is proved when he and the Fool - a fantastic performance from Adrian Scarborough - undertake a humorous mock trial of Lear's two elder daughters only for Lear to turn in an instant and bludgeon the Fool to death in the bath.
Throughout, Russell Beale proves, if there was any doubt at all, that he is one of this country's finest actors. It is quite simply a superb performance.
He is supported by a stellar cast. Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan is sexy and kittenish as she sashays seductively around the stage using her feminine wiles. High on adrenaline and the acts of evil going on around her, her reaction to the horrifically staged eye gauging of Gloucester is a fantastic piece of acting.
Her sister Goneril is played with icy steeliness by Kate Fleetwood, another woman who will do whatever it takes and is not afraid of betraying anyone who stands in her way.
Sam Troughton is utterly convincing as the evil Edmund, the bastard son who wreaks revenge on his father, Gloucester, and step brother Edgar. Eyes bulging, it is as if he too is going mad with desire to destroy his family.
At three and a half hours long it is not for the fainthearted - it is an intense story and there are some gruelling scenes which left me emotionally drained. But this is theatre at its best and should not be missed.

King Lear is on at the National Theatre's Olivier stage until May 28. Tickets from £12. Call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

Jacobean Theatre

SIXTEEN years after the opening of Shakespeare's Globe, the vision of its founder Sam Wanamaker for an indoor theatre next door has been realised. I joined a small group to get a sneak preview.

THEY say great things come in small packages and that’s certainly the case with the new indoor Jacobean Theatre which has finally opened its doors.
Named after the man whose vision drove the project forward, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is quite simply exquisite - a veritable box of delights.
Compact and bijou, seating only 340 on carpeted benches, and with an interior built entirely of oak, it boasts a wealth of features.
Beautiful painted ceilings, carvings, gildings, double doors in the centre of the stage, window shutters, three levels of bench style seating, a musician’s gallery, and a delicious smell of beeswax that wafts through the air are just a few of its many charms.
Any technology, including the ingenious air cooling system, is hidden from view, and the Sam Wanamaker crest is also displayed proudly above the small stage.
It is nestled next to its bigger sibling, the thatched amphitheatre that is Shakespeare's Globe, on the South Bank.
But while the Globe is big, bright, light, and airy, the new theatre is positively tiny in comparison making it extremely intimate.
In fact from the seats on the sides at stage level, the most expensive and where traditionally the rich would go to be seen, you can almost reach out and touch the actors as they swish about the stage.
But it's real beauty lies in the fact it is lit entirely by candlelight both with candles in sconces on the walls and within candelabras suspended from the ceiling.
It is a glorious sight and made possible thanks to a candle expert who snuffed out any anxieties from the health and safety police about having real, lit candles in such a space.
The project has been driven by the desire to fulfil Sam Wanamaker's dream for two theatres on the site and its arrival is a glorious triumph for all involved, creating a real buzz on the South Bank, and all paid for without any public money.
Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole positively fizzes with excitement as he shows off the new space.
"Isn't it amazing," he beams when he welcomes us all in. Open mouthed and momentarily lost for words, the small group I'm with nods in agreement.
"It feels like the beginning of something," he smiles. "We will find out more about it and how we can best use the space as we go along but there is so much potential here."
The new venue is an archetype rather than a replica of a Jacobean theatre and its design is based on the Worcester College drawings which are the earliest known architectural designs for an indoor English theatre.
"Sam always wanted and intended there should be an indoor theatre on the site and the shell was created when we started building the main Globe," says chief executive Neil Constable.
"One of the biggest challenges we faced was that there are no surviving Jacobean Theatres in the country. We had to do a tremendous amount of painstaking research so every detail in terms of the materials, methods and decorative aesthetics, is picked out from an appropriate reference."
The new playhouse offers the opportunity to present plays throughout the year, to expand the repertoire of work, to investigate indoor theatre practice and to stage Jacobean plays in their intended atmosphere.
And opening with John Webster's Duchess of Malfi was a deliberate move.
"Shakespeare would have been wrong," says Dominic. "It had to be something dark, mysterious and macabre and Webster’s Malfi fits the bill.
"Some plays don’t lend themselves to this space as it’s too small. A history play would be tough - Henry V would be very peculiar in here. The sheer sense of cinemascope story telling would be odd.
"This stage demands a lightness and speed of playing which is very different from any other place.
"Theatre is about hearing and experiencing a play and being lost in the environment and you can certainly do that here."
And although he won’t rule out Shakespeare he wants to let the Playhouse bed down for a couple of years first.
"We will do Shakespeare but not yet," he says. "It is important to see what we can do here first. We are learning a massive amount – even in the first couple of weeks since we opened we’ve seen how the space can work and evolve."
And Dominic has ambitious plans for it with a variety of shows from traditional theatre to music, opera, working with a children's theatre company and a incorporating trap doors both on and above the stage.
He is also hoping to take a show from the Globe and transport it to the Playhouse for one performance, just "to see what it's like".
"Pre conceived ideas don't work here," he smiles. "There is a degree of improv, playfulness and wit involved.
"It's still an experiment," he adds. "There is a lot of scope to do things here we can’t do at the Globe and we will be learning all the time.
"It’s an amazing journey we are now on.”
And as we leave he says eyes twinkling, “It is extraordinary and yes I think Sam Wanamaker would be very pleased."