Tag Archives: Christopher Hampton

The Height of the Storm

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 10 September

Time shifting is a well-established dramatic device. Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm makes it more a matter of time slipping, something which is not confined to those on the brink of what used to be called senile dementia.

André in his heyday was a towering creative personality. Now his world is confined to the book-filled house and over-growing garden he shares with his wife Madeleine. Their daughters Anne and Elise watch their father crumble, mentally if not physically.

A high-quality residential home is one solution, but the house will need to be sold to fund it. In their different ways, André, Madeleine and Anne fight shy of this option, though Elise – whose current boyfriend is an estate agent – sees things differently.

The translation is by Christopher Hampton, and director Jonathan Kent allows the text space to breathe. Anthony Ward’s design include a front gauze onto which a negative projection of skeleton twigs and branches suggests both fragility and uncertainty.

Jonathan Pryce as André gives a marvellously nuanced performance of an intellect crumbling in a body which is itself fragmenting from the charismatic lover and intellectual of the past. You can see why Madeleine has always supported him.

This wife is no cipher or shadow to a male genius, as Eileen Atkins makes clear;  Madeleine’s absences, whether temporary forays to cull herbs or otherwise, leaves a void. Atkins, even more than Pryce, is the pivot upon which the whole play depends.

Amanda Drew’s Anne and Anna Madeley’s Elise are well-contrasted studies in latent sibling rivalry; neither is completely selfish nor completely honest. The discordant quartet is joined by Lucy Cohu as a woman from André’s past and James Hillier as Elise’s lover.

There is no interval with just that gauze with its unnerving suggestion of vulnerable delicacy to indicate scene breaks. Audience chatter during the first such interlude had faded into silence by the last one. Were we all looking into our own futures? Perhaps.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Height of the Storm runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 15 September before transferring to Wyndham’s Theatre.

 

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Art

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 15 February

This new tour of Yasmina Reza’s play is directed by Ellie Jones with a starkly white set by Mark Thompson and intriguing lighting by Hugh Vanstone that suggest the timeless-placeless quality which is so cleverly brought out in Christopher Hampton’s translation.

Art is the story of three long-time friends in modern Paris whose relationship is suddenly tested when one of them, Serge (Nigel Havers), buys a contemporary painting which at first glance is simply a white canvas.

Neither fellow-professional Marc (Denis Lawson) not the third member of the trio, not-so-successful businessman Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) can bring himself to approve.

Marc’s taste is conventional; Yvan’s appreciation of art is limited to his own father’s amateur efforts. Neither wish to offend their friend; neither can disguise that the acquisition not simply leaves him cold. Marc’s reaction is more confrontational; Yvan has his forthcoming wedding on his mind with the extended family disagreements this has brought to the surface.

It’s beautifully paced, with a snap-scond timing which never falters. Marc’s mounting frustration at being unable to convince Serge that he’s wasted his money and (what’s worse) damaged his standing with his closest friends as a result is beautifully nuanced by Lawson.

Havers communicates Serge’s equal sense of having his artistic judgement queried and belittled; urbanity can be only skin-deep in certain circumstances. Tompkinson makes the most of Yvan’s own frustration – this is not really to do with art of any kind. Rather it concerns his family tussles over the wording of the wedding invitation with his mother and stepmother battling for precedence.

His extended tirade (in the proper French sense of the word) deserves the round of applause is receives. The play’s quietly open ending is underlined by the final sequence, when the white painting, after its own adventures, is finally hung. You are left feeling that this is certainly not the end of the story.

Things swept temporarily under the carpet have a nasty habit of re-emerging at inopportune moments.

Five-star rating.

Art continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 24 February with matinées on 17, 22 and 24 February. The national tour runs until 9 June  and includes the Norwich Theatre Royal (23-28 April) and the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton (14-19 May)

 

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Sunset Boulevard

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 29 January

This tour of Nikolai Foster’s Curve production of what is arguably the darkest of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals has the advantage of a script and lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton which combine the important merits of fitting the characters as well as the story and its situations.

It is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film about a former star of the silent screen who cannot come to terms with an industry where the visual element shares – and often yields – importance with spoken dialogue. Ria Jones gives a convincing performance as Norma Desmond, mewed up with her memories in the decaying splendour of her mansion on Sunset Boulevard like Dickens’ Miss Havisham.

Jones has the stage presence as well as the vocal strength to make us understand why Norma as turned in (and on) herself. Her equally formidable co-stars are Adam Pearce as Max von Meyerling, the factotum who we learn is so much more, and Danny Mac as the penniless hack script-writer who lets himself be sucked into their twilight world.

Around these three a 12-strong ensemble peoples the stage with characters as colourful as the studio world they inhabit at so many levels. Molly Lynch has the voice and personality for Betty, the girl who wants to write screenplays and who offers Joe a possible route back into the studios.

Adrian Kirk conducts a 12-person orchestra, reinforcing this as something much nearer to one of those diva-led 19th century operas which (with the right cast and production) still command our attention. The design team – Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Douglas O’Connell (video and projection) – swirl us through the different locations with the aid of staircases and the shimmer rather than the concrete of furnishings.

“In my end is my beginning” is a motto attributed to Mary Queen of Scots. This bitter-sweet tragedy has the same trajectory. Unlike so many straight films given the staged musical treatment, this one works from its first notes through a succession of arias and choral set pieces to its savage climax. What’ more, the audience knows it.

Four and a half-star rating.

Sunset Boulevard runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 3 February wth matinées on 31 January and 3 February. I also plays at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 5 and 10 March.

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Filed under Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018

The Father

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 17 September)

Who suffers the most when a once-active – both physically and intellectually – person is afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease? Is it the actual sufferer? Or the family? Is it those outside the immediate family circle who care for the patient? That’s the framework for Florian Zeller’s 2014 play Le père, now translated by Christopher Hampton as The Father and premièred at the Cambridge Arts theatre before transferring to the West End.

The central character is André, a widower who lives alone; one daughter Anne, who still lives in Paris but hopes to move to London with the new man in her life, does everything she can to help him maintain both his dignity and independence. The other daughter Elise, the recipient of a disproportionate degree of affection, is reportedly abroad, though we learn gradually that she died in a accident many years previously.

What Zeller is concerned for us the audience to understand and accept as an active part of this particular theatre-going experience is the dislocation of time and place which is a by-product of Alzheimer’s. We need to concentrate as the sequence of scenes introduces Anne, carer Laura, a medical assessor and Anne former husband.

Director James Macdonald keeps the action moving at a brisk pace; the whole staging is double-framed – first of all by Guy Hoare’s border of white lights which boxes in the acting area of set designer Miriam Buether. Sound designer Christopher Shutt uses the precision of baroque keyboard sonatas broken without warning or regularity by a scratch or needle slip.

Central to it all is André himself. It’s a difficult rôle for any actor as we feel both sympathy for and irritation with the character as he unwittingly comes close to wrecking his daughter’s life. Kenneth Cranham gives a towering performance of a once-strong man crumbling into hostile and destructive senility; his curtain-call ovation is well deserved.

Claire Skinner is Anne, the daughter who is naturally so reluctant to consign her father to a nursing-home, for all the strain which his care is putting on her relationships at home and at work. You believe in her utterly and reach out in sympathetic understanding.

Then there’s Pierre, the husband she is/has discarded. Nicholas Gleaves doesn’t soften his harshness to wards the father-in-law he sees as partly responsible for the end of his marriage. The scene in which he slaps André’s face hits home as it should; we condemn the blow but understand why it happens.

Kirsty Oswald makes Laura as bubbly as she should be; André likens her to Elise, to whom he refers in brutal comparison with Anne at regular intervals. The end of the play, which is both a resolution for a situation grown impossible, is intensely moving. Anyone who has ever known an Alzheimer’s sufferer as the disease inexorably accelerates will know the helplessness of even the closest and most sympathetic bystander. There, but for the grace of God…

The Father runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 26 September.

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