Posts Tagged ‘Ashley Jensen’

Here in the second part of my London series, I’m reviewing the two plays I saw in one day.  It was only the second time I had seen two shows in the same day, as well as the first time I ever stood in line for “Day Seats” for a show.  That was a fairly painless experience except it wasn’t exactly warm that day, and my friend and I had to wait for about an hour before the doors opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre, but we were first in line and able to get our front row seats for 10 pounds each.  The bargain was worth the wait.  It was a mixture of serious drama and crazy comedy that day, featuring three performers I was most familiar with through the UK TV show Gavin and Stacey, with one (Sheridan Smith) acting against type and the other two (Adrian Scarborough and Rob Brydon) playing more expected roles but doing them extremely well.  Here are my reviews:

Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen

In a version by Brian Friel

Directed by Anna Mackmin

Old Vic Theatre, London

October 27, 2012

I am almost ashamed to admit I had never seen or read this play before I saw it in London, despite its being an extremely well-known classic of the theatre by the famed 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and my having heard much about it.  I had read some Ibsen  in drama class in high school, but for some reason never got around to this one.  The main draw for me to see this play was the much talked-about performance in the title role by Sheridan Smith, a television and stage actress much more well-known for comic roles than for serious drama.

This is a new translation with some embellishments by Irish playwright Brian Friel, and I’ve seen reviews that criticize some of Friel’s dialogue choices, but since this is the only version of the play I have seen, I can only review what I saw, and I thought it was excellent.  All aspects of the production, from the inventive set which allowed action to occur and be seen in several rooms behind the main performance area, to the minimalistic but highly effective use of music, to the meticulously detailed costumes and universally superb performances, made this a production worth seeing and remembering for a long time.

This is the story of Hedda Gabler, the strong-willed and self-centered daughter of a general who has married, against general expectation, an earnest and dedicated but seemingly unromantic professor, George Tesman (Adrian Scarborough), and is trying to start a new life with her husband amid shadows of her past and the appearance of her old paramour and current academic rival of George’s, Eilert Loevborg (Daniel Lapaine) as well as a former school acquaintance, the seemingly meek but determined Thea Elvsted (Fenella Woolgar).  What starts out as a seemingly simple character study soon develops into an increasingly suspenseful drama that takes an ultimately tragic turn in several different ways.

Hedda is a much celebrated role noted for its complexity and challenge, and it has been played by many a great actress in the past. Here, the role is taken by Smith, perhaps not the obvious choice in a lot of people’s minds, but the casting works surprisingly well. The great thing about Smith’s performance is that she really goes for it, disappearing completely into the role and bringing so many dimensions to this character that, even though she does some downright awful things, she still holds the audience’s attention and even sympathy.  It would be easy with a character like this and some of her actions to just write her off as a vindictive bitch, and she is that but she’s more as well.  Ibsen wrote the character with some sympathy inherent in her situation, but it takes a great actress to convincingly portray all aspects of the character, from her unbelievable cruelty on the one side, to her very obvious sense of regret and helplessness on the other.  There is also a real sense of affection(although not passion) between Hedda and George at the beginning of the play that makes the events of later on seem all the more tragic.

This is a solid cast all around, but the two real standouts aside from Smith are Scarborough as George and Woolgar as Thea, Hedda’s childhood adversary turned adult rival for the soul of tortured alcoholic writer Loevborg.  The common thread to both of these performances is their sense of moral fortitude and inherent strength despite their initial appearance of fastidiousness (George) or nervousness (Thea).  Both of these characters seem to represent different foils to Hedda, as well as representations of hope should Hedda choose to allow them to be that.  Hedda herself is so locked in the past—the power she used to feel over those around her and her destructive hold on Loevborg—that she is in a way trapped, especially toward the end when the initially jovial and buffoonish Judge Brack (Darrell D’Silva) reveals a much more sinister side.  The ultimate conclusion is telegraphed in the structure of the play, expertly crafted by Ibsen and brilliantly performed by all the players with devastating impact.

This was quite an intense play, and the technical aspects-music and lighting–helped set the mood.  I really need to read more Ibsen. I was impressed not just with the production of this play, but with the structure of it, and I think I will be checking out more of his plays.  This production was a great re-introduction to Ibsen’s work for me, and a very impressive effort from all involved.

A Chorus of Disapproval

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Harold Pinter Theatre, London

October 27th, 2012

This play was a great contrast to Hedda Gabler and, even though it is a revival, it features a lead performance seemingly tailor-made for actor Rob Brydon.  The role of amateur operatic society directory Dafydd ap Llywellyn suits Brydon so well it may as well have been written for him.  Dafydd (don’t call him “David”) is a proud Welshman who has his hand in all aspects of the production even as it all spins out of control.  Brydon brings a lot of energy and affability to the role, as well as a strong singing voice, and his rendition of “All Through the Night” in Welsh is a treat.  Brydon brings a lot of sympathy to this befuddled and at times exasperating character, and the rest of the cast supports him well, but this is really Brydon’s show.  He is full of physical and emotional energy as he runs around the stage and into the audience, and at turns sings, shouts, lectures, and bemoans his situation at various times throughout the play.

Simply told, this is the story of a small town amateur operatic society in the midst of rehearsing a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and all the messy relationship situations that happen along the way. The catalyst of it all is Guy Jones (Nigel Harman), fittingly named because he basically is just a guy in the middle of everything.  He’s an amiable enough character, but as written there isn’t much for him to do but smile and let all the events unfold around him as he joins the society and finds himself embroiled in intrigue both within the production and outside.  We aren’t told much about him except that he can sing, he’s from Leeds, and he works for a local company that is rumored to be involved in a real estate deal that effects some of the other members of the society.  For whatever reason, Guy just seems to attract trouble, as well as the attentions of Dafydd’s neglected wife Hannah (Ashley Jensen) and another society member, the frisky swinger Fay (Daisy Beaumont), whose husband (Paul Thornley) is hoping to benefit from the real estate deal.  As Guy moves from one role to another in the production, the self-absorbed and clueless Dafydd hovers and fruitlessly tries to keep every situation under his control.

In addition to the wonderful Brydon, there are some excellent performances here.  Nigel Harman brings a warmth and affability to the role of Guy that makes his situations believable and relatable, and Jensen plays the bored housewife very well and has good chemistry with both Brydon and Harman.  There are some great scenes with these three, especially one of a tech rehearsal in which Guy and Hannah are attempting to talk about their issues while Dafydd argues with the lighting technician.  There is an excellent supporting cast of distinctive characters as well to round out the production, and the costumes and sets also contribute  well to provide a very strong sense of time and place (a small English town in the mid-1980s).

This isn’t the deepest of plays, and a whole lot of problems pile up only to be left mostly unresolved by the end, but by and large this is a highly entertaining production led by a tour-de-force performance by Brydon.  It was fun sitting in the front row and getting a great view of all of his antics.  If it can ever really be said that an actor was born to play a role, then surely Brydon was born to play this one.  It suits him so perfectly, and it was a joy to watch him and this whole hilarious production.

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