Review: Nice Fish, Harold Pinter Theatre

“My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel”: I know not where I am, nor what I do”

Henry VI part 1, Act 1, Scene 5

William Shakespeare

Two men killing time whilst waiting for something that might never happen. Remind you of anything…? blog-2Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins’ new play Nice Fish shares many similarities with Waiting for Godot, but far outstrips even Beckett in its absurdity. So absurd is the script, in fact, that it seems like it really belongs at a fringe or off-West End theatre, rather than being a Broadway-to-West-End transfer. The Harold Pinter Theatre feels an odd location, something based entirely on Rylance’s reputation rather than anything about the specific production. To be fair, I only booked to see the show because of Sir Mark; plays about ice fishing in Minnesota don’t tend to be my usual fare…

The set, however, is an immediate assuager of doubts. The stage is an ice-field, perspective given by a tiny road in the distance, with the lights of cars and trains speeding past miniature electricity pylons. An automated doll picks at the ice next to a tiny house – and then in an instant the lights black out creating one of the darkest darknesses I’ve ever experienced.
The kind that makes you almost have to shut your eyes because it’s so overwhelming. When the lights come up again the doll has become a real life person. It’s an early warning of the crazy perspective shifts to come.

At first it appears to be a straight-forward two-hander. Jim Lichtscheidl plays straight-man Erik to Rylance’s rather more ridiculous Ron, the kind of person who, during the first moments of the play, manages to drop his mobile through an ice hole into the freezing lake below. blog-4A big pro for this play was that, within ten minutes of it starting, I heard my mum laugh out loud at a joke. (It was about walking into multiple rooms and forgetting R why you were there. Classic mum-joke fare). This is generally rare. It’s not that she doesn’t find things funny, she just doesn’t actually lol. As it were. So well done Mark Rylance for that. To be perfectly honest I would watch him read the Yellow Pages (if they still exist…?) He brings a sense of immediacy to a performance that few other actors can pull off, and it is put to great effect in this production. He is allowed to roam the stage, play with audience reactions, even play with one of those singing fish you put on your wall. loved this bit so much, we used to have one of those in my house when I was little.

At first, we get quite a few interspersed scenes between the odd couple, poetic reflections scattered among the more classic time-killing interchanges between the two. I personally find reminiscing monologues as a concept to be a little tiresome, and a bit short-handy, but the language during these sections rhythmic enough to work a kind of spell over the audience, even if you don’t listen to exactly what everyone is saying all the time. blog-6The more comedic sections are the real charm of the play, however. Ron pretending to be a snowman is a great sequence. Then, unexpectedly, other characters start to arrive. Bob Davis appears briefly as an officious DNR man, followed by Raye Birk and an Ariel-like  Kayli Carter as grandfather and precocious granddaughter who own a sauna in the middle of the frozen lake. With their arrival the oddities which have occurred so far start to build and build until next thing you know they’ve all disappeared in a snowstorm/hurricane, and Davis’ head pops like a seal out of an ice hole clutching Ron’s lost phone in his hand.

From then on the absurdity only increases. **SPOILERS for the end coming up (not in terms of plot, just in terms of design)** Lichtscheidl and blog-3Rylance strip off their thick coats and scarves to reveal businessmen suits – they must be sweating like pigs under those stage lights wow – and then almost immediately take those off to uncover yet another costume change, with Lichtscheidl as an old man, and Rylance as his elderly wife, hobbling about the stage and complaining about life as if it was a movie they didn’t understand (that’s not me being poetic, that’s literally the concept). This was one of my favourite scenes. By this time you’ve just accepted and embraced the ridiculousness, and when two massive fish hooks descend from the ceiling and reel Rylance and Lichtscheidl’s confused OAPs up into the sky it’s a fittingly hilarious ending to a baffling but enjoyable evening.

Where the production falls down, I think, is the middle section. Although director Claire van Kampen does her best to keep providing newly interesting scene changes, tents that fly away, new weather conditions,blog-5 there are definitely moments where you wonder if this play has any point at all, especially during any particularly poetic reminiscing scenes. And not in a “wow, the point is that it has no point” way, like we get by the end, but in a “who knew ninety minutes could be this long” way. Still, this is only a brief feeling, and it is soon made clear that the bemusement is purposeful. This is a play I certainly won’t forget seeing, and I’m so glad I went to see, because it’s really not something I’d usually book to see. Go and see it for an entertaining, bewildering (and short!) night of theatre – and remember, if you turn up in a fish or fisherman costume you get a free box!*

Nice Fish at the Harold Pinter Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

*sadly no one did this when we were there, and I didn’t have the guts to do it myself.

“This wide and universal theatre…”

As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

William Shakespeare

THEATRE, THEATRE, THEATRE has seriously been my life for the past week, and I am loving it! All in seven days, I went to see ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’, the Marianne Elliot’s acclaimed adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Old Vic, starring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, and ‘Blue Stockings’, the Globe’s brand new production telling the story of the first Cambridge female students who fought for the right to graduate.

So let’s start with ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’, 175297_2_previewa play which transferred from the National Theatre to the Apollo Theatre, in the West End, as a result of its astounding success. From this fact, and the various incredibly effusive reviews from critics and family alike, I arrived with pretty high expectations. And actually, despite having bought the cheapest possible tickets, and therefore being ridiculously far away from the stage (it was like I was a giraffe looking at a series of ants), I was still extremely impressed, and completely drawn into the story. The play gets better as it goes on, though from the moment the lights dim and the amazing set design illuminates, the theatre magic is truly felt. The story of Christopher, the autistic fifteen year old, and the secrets he uncovers after finding his neighbour’s dog pitch-forked (yes, pitch-forked!) in the middle of the night, is beautifully and respectfully told, just as in the novel.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the original cast, including Luke Treadaway who won an Olivier for his enactment of Christopher, but to be honest, that mattered not a jot! I saw Mike Noble put in an incredibly realistic performance as the unlikely hero, and Trevor Fox, who I’ve seen quite a few times now, was the perfect father, trying his hardest to cope with a stressful situation. However, these are just two names out of a skilled cast of many, some of whom have hardly any lines but nonetheless transform into anyone and everyone Christopher could possibly meet on his journey.

Saying this, nothing and no one can ever beat the set in this production.176315_2_previewBunny Christie and Finn Ross have done an exceptional job; the deceptively simple set alters over the course of the play to become incredibly complex. A train station, a tube stop, an exam hall, an entire train line, all are created before your eyes, and the lighting and sound only adds to this. What’s especially exciting is how well the way an autistic person sees and hears the world is presented; the overwhelming noise and movement of a London train station has to be dealt with by focusing solely on a red line leading to where he needs to go. Basically, this show is a Must-See. It just keeps on getting better, right up until even after the bows, when Christopher comes back on to show the solution to one of his A Level Maths problems, and in doing so uses every possible light and sound effect in the theatre. A superb play that literally ends with a bang.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was a completely different kettle of fish in many ways. muchado2 For one thing, my friend Tara managed to get us second row of the stalls seats, so I had a much better view of the actors and the stage. For another, whilst naturally ‘Much Ado’ is a much-loved play and its stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are well-renowned, this production, directed by the fabulous Mark Rylance, was still in its previews, and so I don’t think it had quite reached the well-oiled, fluid pace of ‘Curious Incident’. If I’m honest, although Redgrave acted Beatrice reasonably comfortably, Jones sadly forgot his lines at one point, and even when he was acting well, his age showed; every time he came on stage a chair had to be found for him to sit on. However, I think my main problem with this production was summed up in an interview with the two leads themselves; James Earl Jones said: “For Benedick, my only feeling was that here’s a guy who’s in a world where people spin language about. I thought: I bet he is not quite up to it.” I’m afraid that personally I simply don’t agree with this. For me, Benedick and Beatrice should be the quickest, wittiest characters on the stage, outstripping all their friends and relations – that’s why they’re so perfect for each other!

However, that’s not to say this isn’t worth seeing; the supporting cast pick up the slack, particularly a brilliant James Garnon (a stalwart at the Globe) as Don Pedro, an incredibly, butterflies-in-your-stomach handsome Lloyd Everitt as Claudio and Peter Wight as a very successful Dogberry. The idea of using children as George Seacole and Hugh Oatcake was very clever and Kingsley Ben-Adir fully played up to the comedy of this situation. I also liked the few lines that Katherine Carlton had as Beryl, although she kind of looked as if she was on the verge of bursting into tears quite a lot of the time – maybe it was the make-up? I liked the setting of the play during WW2; the costumes were lovely. However, the scenes where Beatrice and Benedick ‘overhear’ the other’s love for each other were poorly done, gaining lots of laughter from the audience – Jones wasn’t visible for almost the entirety of his scene. We thought maybe he’d gone to sleep. Overall, a disappointing production.

Now lastly, onto ‘Blue Stockings’,book-lovers-3-300x200 Jessica Swale’s debut play at Shakespeare’s Globe, which tells the story of female students at Girton College, Cambridge in 1989, who tried to become the first women to graduate. An interesting story, which was very well acted – I got especially excited because most of the cast are also in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and that sort of thing makes me happy J My favourites were Fergal McElherron as Mr Banks, the principled professor and Matthew Tennyson as Edwards, and, although his character was completely horrible, Christopher Logan was superbly hateable as Lloyd. Ellie Piercy was also brilliantly vulnerable as Tess, the protagonist, although I felt the play was severely imbalanced in favour of Tess; almost everything that could have happened, happened to her.

If there are four main women, give one the love affair, one the brilliant essay, one the best guy friend and one the outspokenness in a lecture, not one person all of them!before i go to sleep poster Tess got every story line possible and her friends’ stories were barely developed.  Another thing that sort of irritated me was the deliberate dramatic irony shoved in there willy-nilly. A note to playwrights: just because you’re writing a period drama, doesn’t mean you have to put really obvious Titanic and World War and Einstein references in there as a way to get easy laughs from the audience.  Have a little more respect for your own subtlety, ok?

Rant over! Apart from these small flaws, this play is definitely worth seeing, both historically and dramatically. But the biggest surprise comes at the end *SPOILER ALERT* Flags roll down telling us that women weren’t actually allowed to graduate from Cambridge until 1948. Now that is crazy.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: 5/5 stars

Much Ado About Nothing: 2/5 stars

Blue Stockings: 3.5/5 stars

“O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

Henry V, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve very fortunately been able to see loads of plays recently, so I thought I’d write about them all in one update, so you don’t have to keep checking back 😉 I’m too kind to you, I know! So this post is about some musicals (‘Kiss Me Kate’ at the Old Vic Theatre and the much-praised film of ‘Les Miserables’), some Shakespeare (‘Twelfth Night’ at the Apollo Theatre) and a straight play (‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky’ at the Almeida Theatre), all of which turned out to be very different to my expectations – don’t worry, mostly in a positive way  🙂

So, let’s start with Les Miz, the recent film directed by Tom Hooper, starring so many celebs it’s basically pointless me listing them all – Google it 😉 Now, I’m going to admit I Imagedidn’t go into this with a particularly open mind – Les Miserables is my favourite musical of. all. time. I’ve seen the stage show twice and have listened to the CD (cast recording of the original 1985 London prduction, naturally) so many times I know all the songs backwards, frontwards and inside-out. To say I was sceptical about the film, therefore, is an understatement. In my opinion, the soundtrack is the best in any musical, and I was ridiculously worried about a load of actors butchering it in their mission to give ‘real’ emotion.

However, saying all of that, I was pleasantly surprised by the film, particularly Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ which was incredibly emotional and very well sung, and the finale, which was also very stirring. The cast were actually much better than I expected, especially Anne Hathaway. Hugh Jackman, as the protagonist Jean Valjean, was excellent, barring one of the hardest songs to sing and, unfortunately, one of the most emotional songs in the musical, ‘Bring Him Home‘. I felt he just didn’t perform the song vocally in the best possible way. Nevertheless, the rest of his singing was pretty good. Disappointingly, Russell Crowe as one of my absolute favourite characters, Javert, was just awful; yeah, his voice is fine, but he gave absolutely no range of emotion. It was simply all in the same solemn quiet dynamic for the entirety of Javert’s moral conflict and his complex relationship with Valjean, which is key to the plot. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so annoyed if I didn’t love Javert’s songs so much: ‘Stars‘, ‘Confrontation’and his part in ‘One Day More’ – they’re all amazing and Roger Allam sang them all so well in the original production that I felt seriously let down by Crowe’s lacklustre peformance and his failure to show any emotion at aImagell.

My ony other real criticism was of Helena Bonham Carter as Mme. Thenardier – the Thenardiers are supposed to be the comic turn of the otherwise entirely tragic tale, and yet Bonham Carter just didn’t seem totally dedicated to the singing part of the role. She was completely overshadowed by Sacha Baron Cohen, (who was surprisingly good as her husband, the corrupt innkeeper), and didn’t take advantage of all the opportunities for comedy there were in that role, slurring her words whilst singing which meant at times it was a struggle to hear exactly what she was muttering about.

Saying this, overall it was  good film, even though big numbers like ‘One Day More’ simply work better live on stage. Jackman, Redmayne, Hathaway, Samatha Barks, Amanda Seyfried and all the revolutionaries, including Aaron Tviet were pretty damn good both singing and acting, but I stand by my view that the stage production is just more exciting and stirring. Still, a film worth watching – just listen to the original soundtrack first 😉

Moving onto a much cheerier musical, the one I posted about yesterday: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ directed by ImageTrevor Nunn and starring Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne. Now, this is much more frivolous and fun than Les Miz; the singing and dancing is infectious, especially in massive tap and jazz numbers like ‘Too Darn Hot’and ‘Another Op’nin Another Show’. Both of the protagonists were very strong singers, and songs like ‘I Hate Men’ produced a lot of laughter among the audience. Sections were a little slow, and although the numbers were great fun, they weren’t particularly memorable afterwards. However, a truly fun night out, and worth seeing – especially since it’s a musical of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ – WOO SHAKESPEARE 😀


Speaking of Shakespeare…. after looking forward to it for aaaaggggess, I finally got to see the all-male ‘Twelfth Night’ starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry on Thursday – YAY 🙂 Although I think the production would have worked even better at the Globe, Image(they kept the audience lights on, but it didn’t quite have the same effect as being outside in the groundling pit), since it took a little while for the audience to warm up, it was still brilliant, particularly Rylance, who managed to be completely credible, yet hilarious as Olivia. His stuttering and flounderings, which he is well-known for, made the lines more realistic – actually, all the men-dressed-as-women, including Paul Chahidi as Maria and Johnny Flynn as Viola/Cesario, were crazily believable, and the way they glided across the stage was amazing. I got super excited by the fact that Sebastian was played by Samuel Barnett, who originated the role of Posner in ‘The History Boys’ – erghmygoddd, because Jamie Parker played Henry V at the Globe this summer too, and he was in the History Boys as well and  it’s just too toooo exciting!!! Just me? Yeah, thought so 😉

As Malvolio, I felt Fry was good, but not aything special. Whereas during the productiImageon that the Red Rose Chain did a couple of years ago, Malvolio’s sections were the bits most eagerly looked forward to by the audience, in this version he was not the starring role. Nevertheless, there was no weak link among the cast, and the comedic scenes between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek were superbly done, although, actually Maria was surpsingly one of the funniest characters. Basically, a great production.

Last on the list is ‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky’, a play written by Nick Dear about Edward Thomas, the famous British poet, and his relationships with his wife, their friend Eleanor Farjeon and with the American poet Robert Frost, with whom Thomas spent many hours talking about writing and poetry and walking in the English countrysideImage. The play is intense, and there are constant leaps in time back and forth, as well as direct adresses to the audience, which make the play quite different from many of the things I’ve seen. Hattie Morahan is excellent as Helen, Thomas’ wife, who is in turns both sympathetic and annoying, and Pip Collins is briliant as the aloof, introverted, selfish protagonist. An understated, yet powerful play.

So, there you go. Four productions, four great nights out 🙂 Thanks for reading, and if you’ve seen any of the things I’ve written about, or anything new, please comment with recommendations and opinions. Have fun in the snow!