4 February 2020

This is a difficult one to review. Having seen it staged in Boston (MA) about 20 years ago, it has remained one of the most memorable productions I’ve seen to date (and goodness knows I see a lot of theatre), so the bar was set pretty high.

First things first. The play is 4 hrs long. There is no need for that. There are _so_ many things that add a tiny bit of colour, but, fundamentally, don’t contribute anything and can be easily cut. There is a scene at the start where workers are carrying a sign and stop to complain a bit about the Jews and the masons. What for? We already know the town is poor. (And yes, I know there is a line in the play to that effect. But this is meant to be an adaptation, so highly doubt anyone would balk at a little snip here and there.)  There is no tie between this and anything else. It might be 1 minute long, but there are lots of there throughout (like the incessant space filler from her “comedy duo”). It would add up to a 3.5 hr show, which is a more palatable commitment.

Also, the drum revolve stage at the Olivier (coupled with ample storage space at the back of the stage that can fit an entire set in an instance) allows for very quick set changes. Yet these dragged on with slow music and the pacing of a funeral procession. Beautifully framed and lit, I wouldn’t have been put off by them in a 2.5 hour play. Here it feels like taking the piss. Skipping ahead of myself, I loved the play, and would rather like to see it again. But finding the time for that kind of a commitment when the fantastic content is padded with so much fluff… It’s hard to justify the time and the money… (And yes, sometime one needs a beautiful scene change. It’s all a factor of when and how much.)

So with that out of the way, we are left with 3 acts of things happening. Let’s talk about the middle one whilst I’m talking about the gripes. Most of it takes place on a walkway high above the stage. It is extremely uncomfortable to sit there craning your neck up that high for most of the act no matter where one is in the audience, except, perhaps, back of the circle. I had a look around about 10 mins into it, and hardly anyone was watching: people were looking down and massaging their necks (and hopefully listening intently). If this was done as some kind of “look at Claire up in the sky thinking she is above the hoi polloi”, this could probably have been done via a slightly raised platform on stage. I really wanted to watch, but my neck had other plans. Rather disappointing…

So then on to the much more positive bits. The quality of acting is very good. The ensemble is very strong, but Hugo Weaving and Leslie Manville are absolutely superb.

It was fantastic to see Manville kill it in a “strong independent woman” role, especially after her Kathy role in Mum on BBC (plus the other 2 plays I’d seen her in over the years in the west end presented her with women far more mellow). Weaving, who I’ve been wanting to see more of on stage following Waiting for Godot, may not be the Alfred I expected, but he certainly gave the role a lot of nuance and warmth.

The two of them on stage had chemistry as actors, I thought, but their characters not as much. Not sure if I liked that or not, still thinking…

Manville’s costumes are worth a separate mention. Absolutely spectacular. The black dress was a bit on the short side to be age appropriate, but then Manville looks young and so is able to carry it well.

A bit of interesting note about the last act. No worries, no spoilers here. Claire and Alfred are sat together, and she is talking about her version of the future. I don’t remember the play well enough to tell how much of it came from the original text vs Kushner’s adaptation. But the contents of what she is saying are really touching and show the depth to which she had been affected by the events of her youth. I was certainly getting teary-eyed. Lots of people around me were  sobbing. And yet lots of people in the audience were laughing! Not an uncomfortable sort of laugh, but downright giggles because they found the text funny. Truth be told, I can see how that would be the case if we didn’t have the context supplied by the 3-odd hours beforehand. But as is? Really weird. I get it that theatre is meant to be divisive, but I thought the laugher did ruin the scene a lot.

Would I recommend seeing it? At 3h it’d be a no brainier. At 4, it’s a commitment. Things do move at a quick pace, but it’s a lot to take on mentally after a day at work.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8 had it been shorter, so have to take it down to a £5.

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