Fredo's Theatre Group
Mike and I occasionally (OK - frequently) bunk off and see plays on our own, and sometimes I sit and think, "Oh, this is so good, I wish we'd taken the Group!". And so we're going to try to review some of the plays, etc. that we see on our own or with friends, with an explanation about why we didn't or couldn't or might book them for the Group, and what we think the Group reaction would be. Although individuals in our Group would have different opinions, our judgement of Group opinion refers to general taste and reaction, and the pleasure a production would give to most of those choosing to see it.
Do you think you might have booked for any of these shows? Or have you seen something on your own? Do let us know by email. Your comments may help us when deciding on future bookings. Fredo
Network, adapted by Lee Hall, based on the Paddy Chayefsky film,
at the National -Lyttelton Theatre
What's it about? Based on the 1976 film, it is best remembered for a tv newsreader threatening to kill himself on live tv. But what happens next?
What did it have going for it? What happens next is what we wanted to know. And with Bryan Cranston in the lead and Ivo van Hove directing, there was quite a lot going for it.
Did we enjoy it? We were practically part of it, not one of the on-stage diners (yes, really!), but up front (£15 seats) we felt inside the immersive production. Television is the villain here, just as much now as it was back in the film's day. Channels will stoop low and lower to be top of the ratings so threat of a live suicide really is top of the pops. But this is about more than tv - viewers believe just what they see on their screens (fake news!) which is manipulated by commercial and political concerns, kills off competition and in turn undermines democracy. And truth. The production leads us from studio to control-room to restaurant to home and even outside the theatre, with cameras following the players, and screens and mics attending to every word and detail. The adapted script (3 stars) is somewhat overblown (two hours, no interval) but, thanks to charismatic performances from Brian Cranston and Douglas Henshall and a slick involving production, the play builds up a robust charge and gains an extra star for that.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? Cranston has fans from tv's Breaking Bad and some may remember the powerful film, so it is a box office hit, but there was no chance of making a group booking.
Would the group have enjoyed it? I guess a mixed response.
Group Appeal: 3/5
Pinocchio by Dennis Kelly, with songs from the Walt Disney film,
at the National: Lyttelton Theatre
What's it about? A wooden puppet wants to be real, as we all know from the 1940 Disney film, whether or not we were around then.
What did it have going for it? I remember Pinocchio's nose growing if he tells a lie, but what's the rest of the story? This version uses the Disney songs but goes back to the darker original story for it's moral tone, and with NT resources at its disposal it was worth a viewing.
Did we enjoy it? With some tiny tots in the audience, we wondered if this NT Christmas show would be suitable – it kept them quiet but there may have been some parents worrying that this version was not exactly a panto for kids. It had magic and wonder (how did they make that nose grow, and get a blue flame to swoop and hover above the stage?); it had a cast of 20+ who brought colour and verve to the black-box set; and it had an intriguing concept which grabbed our attention from the start – the puppet boy was a live actor and real people were played by oversize puppets. The songs were given attractive production numbers, and the moral (you must be brave, truthful and unselfish, and can't have love without pain) takes us through ever darker situations and threats to a delightfully tearful and emotional finale. Character actors including Mark Hadfield, David Langham and Annette McLaughin were well used but the star was undoubtedly Joe Idris-Roberts as Pinocchio who carried the story with charm and gusto. This may not have been a Pinocchio for all tastes and ages at Christmastime, but it pleased us.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? With kids in tow (age 6+ I suggest), quite possibly.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Again, quite possibly.
Group Appeal: 3.5/5
John by Annie Baker, at the National: Dorfman Theatre
What's it about? “Everybody knows a John,” declares the blind Genevieve crushingly to Jenny. Genevieve has just recounted her feeling of possession by her ex-husband John and her subsequent madness; we are yet to discover the signifance of another John in Jenny’s life.
Who is John? He seems to stand for some buried memory, a transgression, a trauma in our past, like an original sin that overshadows our lives. This influence is reflected in the setting of the play: we’re in Gettysburg, where the bloodiest battle of the American Civil war raged for days, and in a guesthouse stuffed with dolls and knick-knacks. Mertis, the owner, hasn’t visited the battle-field, but Elias, Jenny’s boyfriend wants to see it all, including the graveyard ghost tour. Upstairs, the Jackson room is mysteriously off-limits. At a measured pace, we are allowed to observe the disintegration of the relationship between Jenny and Elias, under the slightly sinister scrutiny of the older women. Let the ghosts of the past rest among the carnage.
What did it have going for it? We enjoyed Annie Baker’s long previous play The Flick and she is definitely a distinctive new voice in contemporary American drama. It’s possibly a bit premature to hail her as a genius, but keep an eye on her.
Did we enjoy it? Very much. James Macdonald’s direction seemed to serve the play perfectly, allowing the action to unfold as slowly and naturalistically as the playwright demanded. The actors gave pitch-perfect performances, especially visiting American, the impish Marylouise Burke.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? I think the running-time of 3 hours 20 minutes might have scared some people off.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Much as we enjoyed it, the play is an enigma, and I think that certain aspects of the production – the slow pace, Mertis opening and closing the theatre curtains and fixing the time on the clock, and Genevieve’s strange monologue at the second interval (commandingly delivered by June Watson) – might have irritated some of the audience.
Group Appeal: 2/5
Julian Ovenden at the Crazy Coqs
What's it about? It’s about escaping from everyday life into the more glamorous world of cabaret, and losing yourself in great songs sung well by a good singer.
What did it have going for it? It was an anniversary celebration, and we’ve always liked Julian Ovenden since his first appearance in Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar. He’s built up a following with subsequent appearances in shows and concerts, and this was our first chance to see him in cabaret.
Did we enjoy it? Cabaret isn’t just a chance for the artist to show off their skills. It gives the audience a chance to see how the performer can interact with them, and this intimacy is part of its appeal. On this showing, Julian Ovenden is a confident performer with a relaxed style, and not afraid of sharing a risqué witticism. His choice of material was good: standards from Cole Porter (It’s All right with Me) and Lerner & Loewe (I Could Have Danced All Night) blended in with Dolly Parton (Here You Go Again) and Willie Nelson (Always On My Mind). I might have questioned one or two arrangements, but these were minor blemishes on a evening that flew by.
Our Rating: 4/5
Would the Group have booked? Sadly, not really suitable for a group booking.
Would the group have enjoyed it? Without a doubt.
Group Appeal: 4/5
Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams,
at the Almeida Theatre
What's it about? Alma Winemiller, the repressed daughter of a vicar, and her relationship with an unruly young doctor who grew up next door.
What did it have going for it? A rare opportunity to see a major Tennessee Williams play that was last seen in London in 2006 (starring Rosamund Pike) and which was taken off 10 weeks short of its projected 16 week run.
Did we enjoy it? We certainly did. It is the third of Williams' major plays, following The Glass Menagerie and Street Car. The central character is Alma whose painful shyness and self-consciousness causes her to be fearful in the face of advances from the very physical young doctor who lived next door. She is further inhibited and diminished by an all-controlling father and a disturbed mother, who she also has to help take care of. Alma, whose name is Spanish for "soul", is a kindred spirit of Laura from The Glass Menagerie and there are many other echoes of Williams' plays both previous and future. But here the director Rebecca Frecknall achieves a huge success - she sets the play on a stage whose curved brick walls hug 9 upright pianos. Their crashing chords and plangent single notes (lighting them up like lightning) provide an intriguing sound score. There is no hint of Southern Gothic to be found, but unlike some other recent deconstructions of classic plays, this production brings the play heartbreakingly to life, and at the centre is the unforgettable performance of Patsy Ferran whose every utterance one is glued to, beautifully dealing with Williams' poetic language. Frecknall has achieved a fluent visual style which accords with Williams' views that the physical stage was a limited space for his needs. The excellent Matthew Needham as the young doctor, John, is also impressive, as are the other actors, doing multiple casting. Let's hope this will transfer to the West End - it should do, given the rave reviews - in which case we must hope that Our Boys organise a trip.
Our Rating: 4.5/5
Would the Group have booked? If there had been the opportunity they should have, but perhaps in the future....
Would the group have enjoyed it? If not, I would be very shocked.
Group Appeal: 4/5
Girls & Boys by Dennis Kelly
at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
What's it about? (NO SPOILER) Growing up, life, marriage and after, and the girls v. boys disconnection.
What did it have going for it? Carey Mulligan giving the performance of her life, a 90 minute monologue leading from stand-up comedy routine about life's chance meetings, sex, jobs, children and daily 'stuff', to her lifetime's unexpected and unimaginable trauma.
Did we enjoy it? We were stunned. This is a slow-burner which jokes us into a relaxed state of rapport with Carey Mulligan's young mother as she plays with the kids and confides in us the details of her normal everyday life. But there are subtle shifts of gear, the audience's laughter fades as we listen, holding onto her every word yet not wanting to know, not wanting to believe what happens next. But we must and we do, totally. The Royal Court issues a Trigger Warning (critics take note) that they don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment by giving away too much info on a play - "Its often the unexpected shared moments and plot twists that capture the audience and create the debate and conversation beyond the performance." But even more importantly "these moments can be particularly distressing for some individuals" and could "cause you extreme distress...". We now appreciate how audiences could be distressed, deeply so, (some have to leave; we heard of a man fainting) but we were highly impressed - by the writing and the performance and the original minimalist production which raise this short piece (like the Young Vic's recent Yerma) into the realm of 'notable theatrical event'. It's one to discuss, to share, to understand. It's all in the words, it's storytelling with an emotional depth-charge.
Extra note - There are two details which I particularly relish. There is always the performance convention that we know we are in a theatre watching actors pretending this is real life, don't we? But there's a double-bluff moment here when Carey Mulligan suddenly tells us all along she has just been pretending, and at that moment (deep breath) we are told the dreadful reality of her character's situation.
And the set, it's a bleached-white living room, every detail and prop is white creating a clinical unreality. Carey Mulligan and some items she touches are real, colourful among the white-out, but with a switch of the light the whole room can return to natural colours. How did they do that?
Our Rating: 4.5/5
Would the Group have booked? Would you book after reading the above?
Would the group have enjoyed it? Some would; some would be very upset.
Group Appeal: 3/5
PLEASE EMAIL US WITH YOUR COMMENTS OR SUGGESTIONS
This is a list below with ratings of everything we see in 2017, with and without the Group.
Our own theatre visits without the Group are shown in bold and the dates marked >.
The list will be updated occasionally.
*assessed from the comments on the Opinions page and feedback on the coach