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The Letter

Anthony Andrews and Jenny Seagrove - onstage in 'The Letter'

Six thunderous bullets are all it takes to kill a man in Alan Strachan’s haunting West End revival of the Somerset Maugham classic legalistic thriller the Letter. This is not so much a classic whodunit, but more a ‘Why did she do it’ and ‘What price love?’

Set in 1920s Malay, Jenny Seagrove (of counsel Jo Mills in Judge Deed fame) plays the embittered cool calculating Leslie Crosbie who opens the piece firing the fateful bullets. But was it self defence in the face of a possible rape or revenge on an ill suited lover? It all looks rather clear cut until an incriminating letter provides evidence that Crosbie’s tale is more fiction than fact.  Seagrove takes to the piece with pure theatrical brilliance. Not perhaps allowing us to like her character, but rather as the play advances for us to understand her, even to the event that we know people like her – those trapped in a loveless marriage for the sake – well of anything else.

The undoubted stars of the play are the lawyers. Well why not indeed? Anthony Andrews as Crosbie’s defence lawyer gives a timing to the performance rarely seen recently in the West End. Every mannerism is wistfully measured in this delightfully balanced and underplayed performance. His moral struggle is one prevailing today for many lawyers, namely how far am I prepared to go for my client? After all “the law’s the law!” But then again, law at what price when friendship and duty are in issue. 

As with every great hero Andrews has his foil in his able and ever thoughtful Chinese legal assistant played by Jason Chan, who proves to have both the cunning and delivery equal to that of his English counterpart. Their interplays are the real gems of the production – beautiful nuances, telling looks and an obsequiousness, which pervades devilish motives.  
 

Paul Earnsworth’s sets feature a number of scenes all exquisitely designed, with an attention to detail that truly make you feel as if a window had been opened on the stage to 1920’s Malay.  From the veranda of the bungalow on a rubber plantation to an opium den, the smattering of lines in the local language throughout the piece only served to convince and the interplays between the white immigrants and the local “boys” were beautifully scripted. Changes in the scenes were artfully dealt with as part and parcel of the servant’s duties.

In parts the performances are almost am dram in style, but rather than present this as a  criticism, it actually gives a certain charm and ambiance to the piece. This is a delightful period drama in which law takes centre place. How far can and should a  lawyer go in defending  his client?

Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road London until August 11, 2007

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Spamalot

Monty Python’s Spamalot is unlike any other theatrical production I have seen this year. It is loud, raucous, immensely funny and to paraphrase a phrase from the strapline “a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture”. It is an absolutely delightful production with standing ovations guaranteed every night. Eric Idle and the composer John Du Prez have brought a hilarious musical to the West End having stolen every funny line, joke and absurdity from the original Monty Python. The songs are both catchy and downright stupid. From a practical point of view there is some merit in watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail so as to ensure that you are up to speed with the humour that said most of the audience when I saw the production knew the script almost as well as the actors. For those who have not seen the film, the premise is King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail; with a touch of romance; the French and always looking on the bright side. The must see musical of 2006. JMH

Spamalot is at the Palace Theatre Cambridge Circus London. Box Office:  0870 8900142.                                 

Website:  www.montypythonsspamalot.com

 

 

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Road to Nirvana at the King’s Head Theatre Islington

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Road to Nirvana at the King’s Head Theatre Islington

For me Shaun Williamson and always will be Barry from Eastenders, an irritating, yet loveable character actor. In this play by Arthur Kopit, directed by Colin McFarlane we meet an American Barry on speed and he is fantastic.   Shaun Williamson has raised his game enormously as an American film producer in a rush to find fame, celebrity and that good old American buck. Barry is reborn! This play is about Barry, sorry Al, as a washed-up wannabee with a last chance at stardom and his latest squeeze Lou (played exquisitely by Wendy Morgan). His success depends on securing “the kingdom” that movie which will bring him to the top again. To achieve this he returns to his former partner Jerry, a loser in the mould of Oliver Hardy – Al had ruined Jerry’s career and drove his wife to suicide but needed him to close the deal as he “had balls”.

The film upon which the play is based is to be the life story of Nirvana, “the biggest rock star in the world” who is unfortunately slightly crazy. She has written an autobiography which has amazing similarities to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick;   well other than the cover it is the same book. But she is a celebrity and the fans loves her so in truth “who cares”. For continuity however the whale has been replaced, but this time by something a lot more personal and I am not referring to Moby.

To get to the dream deal Jerry has to endure almost everything to show his commitment to the deal; including cutting his wrists; the eating of Holy poo and ultimately the sacrifice of his “balls” or at least one. The performances are fresh, witty and energetic. When Shaun Williamson is off stage the play labours somewhat awaiting his verbosity and ruthless energy.  This is a great part comedy; part farce with twists laughter and what at the end of the day everybody is missing from their lives, that “splash of life”. Rejoice Pat and Janine, for Barry is back!

 

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Guys and Dolls

What makes a great musical? Song, dance, a script and these days a big star. Well if that is the criteria, then Michael Grandage's hugely enjoyable production of the classic 1950s musical Guys and Dolls fits the bill. The star is Don Johnson, best remembered as that 1980s fashion icon come detective Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice.

Guys and Dolls is the story of Nathan Detroit (Johnson) the organiser of an illegal crap game in New York. With the cops on his trail, Detroit has to find a new venue for his game and needs some capital to pay for it. So he makes a bet with master gambler Sky Masterson that he cannot make the next girl he sees fall in love with him. The very next girl just happens to be Miss Sarah Brown (the surprisingly talented Amy Nuttall formerly of Emmerdale), the leader of a local Salvation Army kind of reform group, who fortunately happens to be rather beautiful. As luck would have it (in the clichéd way) Masterson falls in love with Sarah...                                  

The songs are familiar ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’, ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’, ‘If I Were A Bell’ to name but a few. A remarkably uplifting and fun musical. JMH

Guys and Dolls is at the Piccadilly Theatre, Denman St London W1C.

The Exonerated

In the summer of 2000 script writers Jessica Blank and her husband Erik Jensen interviewed 40 of the 89 Death Row inmates in the US to create the play The Exonerated : a disturbing testimony of the American legal system. Corruption; ignorance; racism and ambition. In many ways everything bad about the desperate rush to convict. In these testimonies the victims are those charged; those convicted and subsequently those exonerated.

This verbatim theatre is dramatically brought to life by the cold emotive performances of its cast.  Perhaps I am glamorising the production thus by talking about the present and previous artists who have appeared in Bob Balaban’s award-winning New York production of the Exonerated which started its sixteen week run at the Riverside studios in Hammersmith on the 21st February last. The list is exceptionally impressive: Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Vanessa Redgrave, Alanis Morissette, Danny Glover and Kathleen Turner to name but six. The names of the A-listers from both sides of the Atlantic who have appeared in the play goes on and on. But this story is not one of glamour, but a true story of six very different people who were condemned to death in the American penal system for crimes that they did not commit. Crimes for which they spent decades on death row awaiting their execution.

The Exonerated is made up of their true-life stories, in their own words. The tale of Sunny Jacobs, a mother of two who spent 16 years on Death Row on the basis of false evidence; Kerry Max Cook, a Texan who was wrongly convicted of murder; Delbert Tibbs, a black Chicago poet who was falsely accused of rape and murder while hitchhiking across America.

The performances are spell binding; compulsive and somewhat surprisingly invigorating. Whilst the cast changes every few days, the star performance is Sunny Jacobs her quiet resilience illuminates the stage, every word her character speaks (and when I attended she was played by Stockard Channing from the West Wing, although if you are lucky you may actually get the opportunity to witness Sunny playing herself – now that must be harrowing) is to a silent audience hungry to devour her every word.  Not only was Sunny on death row for a murder that she did not commit, but so too was her husband Jesse Tafero, under identical circumstances. He was not however exonerated. He lost his life to the currents of the electric chair “It took thirteen and a half minutes for Jesse to die. Three jolts of electricity that lasted fifty five seconds each. Almost a minute. Each. Until finally flames shot out from his head, and smoke came from his ears”

This is not a play for the faint hearted, but it is a play about hope. In places it is terrifying, disturbing and unforgiving. But then again, this is the real world. It is to be recommended.