Mary Woodward Review

Choice Grenfell Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Review

Choice Grenfell

**** (4 Stars)

Joyce Grenfell will be best remembered by film buffs as the toothy, angular spinster games mistress in the original St Trinian’s films. Unfortunately film makers couldn’t see her in other types of role and so film audiences never got to see her many other talents. Joyce was born into a privileged world – her aunt was Nancy Astor, and she spent a lot of time at Cliveden, the Astor’s country house – but she found an outlet for her singing and comedic talents when in 1939 she was invited to take part in the Little Revue in the West End. Her impersonations and characterisations were an unexpected hit, and she never looked back. She appeared in more revues, entertained the troops with ENSA in the second world war, wrote many books, collaborated with Stephen Potter to produce radio programmes, became a well-known and well-loved television performer, and worked with pianists Richard Addinsell and William Blezard, performing her intimate shows on stage and television all over Britain, Australia, and America.

I’ve known and loved Joyce’s work all my life – and so, obviously, had the audience at the Brunton last Friday. Suzanna Walters and Andrew D Brewis gave superb performances as Joyce and Bill Blezard, in the first half arriving at the Brunton for a warm-up and preparation for the evening’s show, and in the second half giving us a full-on, sparkling performance of some of Joyce’s best-known songs and loving, accurately-observed monologues.

The audience was quiet at first – possibly concentrating very hard on listening appreciatively – but there were laughs right from the start – when Joyce asked is this place run by the council?, when Bill complained of the nylon sheets in his hotel, and when Joyce expressed surprise that people still wanted to come and hear her in an era when others were going crazy for the Rolling Stones. Songs and monologues were interspersed with chatty conversation which cleverly gave an outline of Joyce’s career and mentioned some of the people who crossed her path, including a young Clive James and Johnny Ball.

The second half was outstanding right from the start, as both performers came in in their concert gear and moved immediately into Joyce’s signature tune I’m going to see you today. We re-encountered all our favourite characters – Lumpy Latimer, so exquisitely awkward at her first old girls’ reunion after innumerable years in the colonies; the prize worrier who simply didn’t know how to cope with having won a rabbit [still in its skin] in a raffle; the professional singer who gave up her career to look after her children while her husband globe-trotted and met up with a number of ‘good [female] friends’ – but always came home; the anxious mother on her first transatlantic flight to meet her son’s African-American wife, and hoping desperately – I just want to do it right.

The night would not have been complete without Stately as a galleon – the humorous description of women forced by a shortage of men to dance with each other – and I have three brothers, a seemingly loving celebration of a woman’s involvement first in the lives of her three brothers and then in those of their children which reveals the tragic loneliness of her servitude to these uncaring siblings. A woman’s hymn-singing worry about whether or not the gas had been left on under the saucepan of chicken bones was followed by the monologue we’d all been waiting for – Free activity period in a kindergarten class, with not only George, don’t do that…but an unending stream of little disasters culminating in the summoning of the fire brigade to release a finger deliberately stuck in a keyhole, the crowning glory of an evening we’d all been eagerly anticipating and which magnificently lived up to our expectations.

Suzanna Walters was superb as Joyce, though I was a little concerned for her singing voice which seemed to be rather strained – maybe the result of an extensive tour of this delightful show. The piano playing of ‘Bill Blezard’ was at all times delightfully impressive [looking so ridiculously easy!] but he got a special round of applause for playing while lying underneath the keyboard… The audience obviously loved every minute of the show and were sorry to see it end.

Choice Grenfell, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, RUN ENDED

Mary Woodward Review

Handel Agrippina Metropolitan Opera relay, Review

Handel Agrippina

***** (5 Stars)

Agrippina was first performed in 1709, but the plot is still relevant today. The Roman empress Agrippina, wife of Claudio, wants her son Nerone to be made heir to the imperial throne, and is prepared to use any means to ensure this. Claudio, however, favours his general, Ottone, who is in love with Poppaea – who is also pursued by Nerone and Claudio. Agrippina, hearing that Claudio has died in a shipwreck, leaps into action. Lying right left and centre, she promises her sexual favours to her two freedmen, Pallente and Narciso, if they will assist her. Just as it appears that her machinations will succeed she learns that Claudio is not dead: she simply regroups, and starts blackening everyone’s characters to everyone else. People start to see through her plots, and everything begins to unravel around her – but just as it seems that she is about to receive her comeuppance, she wriggles out of everything and manages to achieve her dearest wish – her son Nerone is confirmed by Claudio as his heir. Familiar, or what???

The cast are superb. Joyce di Donato is the scheming empress, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies the lovelorn Ottone, and soprano Brenda Rae the fiery, intelligently scheming Poppaea. Mezzo Kate Lindsey plays the twitching, unpredictable, self-obsessed brat Nerone, while Matthew Rose as Claudio is at times a powerfully majestic emperor, at times a suspiciously Trump-like fool. Duncan Rock and Nicholas Tamagna make a beautifully-contrasted and gullible pair of lapdogs for Agrippina.

Aprippina’s theme song could well be I will survive – though her drive to succeed centres round her son, to whose disturbingly volatile nastiness she is totally oblivious. Joyce di Donato is more usually seen as a melancholy heroine or a steely queen: here she is allowed to give full rein to her brilliant comic powers as she manipulates everyone around her and makes it clear to us, but not to her victims, how she despises them. Only when she is alone in act two does her underlying fear of the consequences of her evil deeds appear – but it is quickly beaten into submission, and she sweeps onwards in her obsessive quest. Even when defeat stares her in the face, she can twist everything round and convince Claudio that everything she has done was to keep the throne secure for him. Yet again she triumphs: her son is proclaimed heir to the imperial throne – but during the final triumphant chorus she fails to see Nerone standing behind her with his hands reaching out for her neck…

If Agrippina’s tale is one of a lust for power that she wants for her son, Ottone’s is one of a desire for power that is easily relinquished to achieve his overwhelming need to be with the woman he loves. He saves Claudio’s life in the shipwreck, and the grateful emperor names him his heir: he is overjoyed – but power is meaningless without the woman he loves by his side. When Agrippina’s lies turn everyone against him, he is desolate – but because he has lost his love, not the promised power. When Poppaea demonstrates her fidelity, cleverly evading the advances of both Claudio and Nerone, he is overjoyed: and when Claudio, finally realising Ottone’s honesty and Agrippina’s duplicity, decrees that Nerone shall marry Poppaea and Ottone succeed to the throne, he has the courage to speak out, refuse the offered power, and ask instead for Poppaea.

All the other characters are driven by desire – Nerone wants power, but he also wants Poppaea; Claudio is also pursuing Poppaea; she, believing Agrippina’s lies, wants vengeance; Pallante and Narciso desire Agrippina and blindly involve themselves in her plots. They rejoice in others’ misfortune – most tellingly when Ottone is accused of treason: one by one they show their contempt and leave him alone in his misery, the social outcast whom it’s disaster to be seen to support.

The contemporary setting chosen by David McVicar for this production starkly reveals the immediacy of the situation and the choices facing the characters. A giant golden staircase leading to the imperial throne dominates the stage, while massive pillars display the might and power of the emperor, and provide dark shadows in which the conspirators can hide. Only once does the desire to play up the humour potentially overwhelm the characters’ emotions – in the bar scene that opens the second half, with an outstanding on-stage virtuoso performance from harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire. Poppaea’s hung-over antics rather make light of the depth of Ottone’s real misery – but at the same time one has to admire her impeccable comic timing, along with the antics of all the characters surrounding her in the bar. Nerone’s frenzied coke-snorting outburst furiously promising vengeance on Poppaea for her rejection of him was another outstanding performance, again chillingly hinting at her ultimate fate.

It’s astounding to realise that this was the Met’s premiere of Agrippina, and Joyce di Donato’s first Handel role at the Met. Handel was only twenty-four when he wrote this opera, but his understanding of character and motivation and how to display this musically was already outstanding. His ability to pace the drama and provide moments of heart-stopping pathos and genuine depth of feeling amongst the outbursts of passion and cold-blooded machinations is extraordinary when you consider how new opera was as an art form. Agrippina and Poppaea have a seemingly unending succession of bravura displays of passion, drive, and anger; Claudio and Nerone each have superb opportunities to reveal their inner desires; Pallente and Narciso each display their willingness to be led by the nose and believe Agrippina’s promises.

In the middle of all this stands Ottone, whose despairing lament soars out into the blackness that slowly encloses him when he believes himself abandoned by Poppaea, and whose delight in her proven faithfulness leads to the only duet in the whole piece as the two declare their mutual love and trust. The third deeply heartfelt piece comes, surprisingly, from Agrippina: all her plots have been unmasked, and shown Claudio the lengths to which she was prepared to go to get her son on the throne. He sits dejectedly and she sings a tender aria urging him to let go of his anger – if you want peace, my love, let go of your hate: if only she could have listened to her own advice…

A stellar cast gave a timeless and spine-chillingly accurate depiction of the lengths to which people are prepared to go in pursuit of power while Harry Bicket and the Met orchestra gave a masterclass in baroque playing and ornamentation. At the final curtain it seemed as though the entire stalls audience were on their feet – a fitting tribute to one of the most enjoyable and satisfying Met relays I’ve seen in a long time.

Handel Agrippina, Metropolitan Opera relay, RUN ENDED

Mary Woodward Review

Rambert, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Review

Rambert: PreSentient; Rouge; In your rooms

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

**** (4 stars)

I was hoping for great things from this triple-bill from Rambert, but was disappointed: the dancers were extremely talented, but whatever message they were presenting didn’t get through to me. Most of the audience, however, seemed very appreciative and responded to each piece with enthusiastic applause and loud cheers.

Wayne McGregor’s 2002 PreSentient was danced to a lot of percussive, frenzied noise with a brief interlude of surprisingly lyrical string playing, while the dancers twisted themselves into extraordinarily sinuous contortions singly, in small groups or all together, with some quite amazing lifts. Occasional moments of stillness stood out in the near-constant movement. One dancer was left alone twirling on stage as the blackout fell. I really wasn’t sure what it was all about.

Marion Motin’s Rouge, first performed in 2019, began with the stage covered in ‘mist’ through which it gradually became possible to see the curled figures of dancers. A musician on stage played electric guitar, and another had his drum kit down in the pit. Seven dancers in an extraordinary jumble of clothes emerged from the mist and began synchronised falling-down-and-surging-straight-up-again, which was extremely impressive but quite rapidly became tedious. At some stage they flung off most of their clothes: they bounced up and down together; they lay down on the floor and moved their legs; much of their ensemble movement reminded me of the snatches of pop video I try to ignore at the gym.

The mist started pouring across the whole stage in waves, looking like the incoming tide. A long neon tube on the floor glowed blood red: another one further back and high up followed suit, and at different times made patterns of light across the stage. The dancers’ interactions became increasingly cruel and violent towards each other – at one point one dancer strangled another – and the guitar and drums mirrored their increasing fury, with a noise level way beyond my pain threshold. Things calmed down a bit, the dancers twitched and wiggled and tapped their bodies with their hands before a final frenzy was drowned in a merciful blackout.

At this point I was wondering whether I could face a third piece – but I’m glad I did. For me In your rooms was the most interesting piece of the evening, created by Choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter and first seen in 2007. It mixed spoken word with a musical score played by onstage musicians and had a lighting score that made me think of Rembrandt as it mixed varying levels of light and shadow and surrounded everything with a mistiness that was more attractive than the harsh lighting of the previous works. In the overall darkness tiny snatches of movement or total stillness, unrelated to each other emerged and were instantly gone. The invisible commentator mused on the essential chaos of the universe, the tension between it and the order we try to impose, and wondered whether our use of an ever-increasing ocean of words is in order to replace our feelings. There was much chaotic, neurotic movement, both individually and collectively: it was only at the end that one couple reached out to each other and found something that enabled them to relate positively to each other and find some respite from the individuals’ internal chaos.

The dancing was, as I’ve said, extremely impressive, and the rest of the audience obviously thought all three pieces were superb. I simply couldn’t connect with anything in the first two pieces, and appreciated, but was not deeply moved by, the third piece. Much of the dancing seemed to me more like gymnastics than dance – but perhaps it was simply expressing emotions foreign to me in a language I simply don’t speak, and using a music that is equally alien. Next time I’ll check what music they’re using before booking to see the show…

Rambert: PreSentient; Rouge; In your rooms, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 22nd February for tickets go to:


Mary Woodward Review

Nixon in China Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Review:

John Adams Nixon in China

**** (4 stars)

In 1972 President Richard Nixon made history by shaking hands with Premier Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, an event which Nixon regarded as important historically as the moon landings.

Fifteen years later composer John Adams wrote his opera to a libretto by Alice Goodman: the production marked the beginning of Adams’ long collaboration with director Peter Sellars.

The first act of the opera deals with the historical event – the Chinese people awaiting the arrival of the presidential plane, the handshakes, and the diplomatic meetings [in which both sides seem to fail to understand each other]. The second act focuses on Pat Nixon’s reactions to the succession of places and people who are displayed to her, culminating in her visceral response to the punishment of a young girl in a ballet the presidential party are watching. In act three the central figures on both sides reflect on their past happiness and present state of unknowing. It’s left to Chou En-Lai to close the opera, getting up after yet another sleepless night to go to work as the dawn chorus begins, wondering how much of what we did was good?

In this production we are onlookers of the past. The stage is full of stacks of document boxes, among which archivists move, occasionally opening boxes to view their contents. Extremely clever use of contemporary photographs and newsreel footage shows the arrival of the presidential plane and the initial historic handshake: we then move to the room in which Nixon met Mao – the set [bearing a striking resemblance to a photograph of Mao’s private rooms] unfolds on stage from an enormous wooden archive box.   The second act starts in the main archive, with boxes used to form the places between which Pat Nixon is shepherded before the space opens up for the ballet. The boundary between art and real life dissolves as Pat is drawn into and takes part in the drama. The third act takes place around the enormous wooden archive box, into which the main characters are gradually replaced. The chief archivists close their boxes, switch off their desk lamp, and Premier Chou En-Lai joins the others ‘back in history’.

What of the opera? I didn’t expect to be grabbed by the music, and I wasn’t. Most of the speech was declaimed, there were no [to me] recognizable melodies, and there was frequent repetition of patterns of arpeggios to start each new scene, as though Adams couldn’t think of any other way of linking scenes. Having supertitles helped understanding of what was being said/sung but distanced one from the action, while not making clear who was singing what in the ensembles. The music didn’t make things any clearer either – I couldn’t follow each character’s musical line in the general all-over wash of sound. I loved the moment when Pat Nixon was taken to a pig farm and the chorus all broke into pig pig pig pig pig, getting one of the few huge laughs of the evening [another being when a photograph of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon stonily ignoring each other appeared a succession of ‘historic encounters’ shots].

The first act, though extremely long, mostly held my attention. The various characters became individuals, and the cultural and ideological differences, and the American seeming ignorance thereof became clear. The second act brought life, colour and incredible movement as seven dancers performed part of The Red Detachment of Women, a revolutionary ballet devised by Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing. The third act seemed extremely long and tedious, and lacked any dramatic contrast or fire. Maybe this was the intention: to show the ephemeral nature of the media hype while the real long-term effects of the event were insignificant and the main protagonists disillusioned.

The performances were superb, and I have profound admiration for the singers’ mastery of the complex music as well as their impressively clear diction and excellent characterisation. Chou En-lai [Nicholas Lester]’s voice was gorgeous, while Madame Mao [Hye-Youn Lee]’s ability to sing ridiculously high notes while clearly articulating every syllable was masterly – as was her utterly self-confident ability to dominate every person on stage. David Stout as Henry Kissinger presented a personality somewhat at odds with his ‘elder statesman’ reputation in later years. Eric Greene was an excellent Nixon, underlining the inherent impenetrability of his personality and his possibly conflicted motives – ‘tricky Dicky’ in every respect: while Julia Sporsén shone as his wife Pat, loyally supporting her husband and doing her best to comply with all the press requests for photos, even obligingly patting the ear of one of the pigs at the pig farm. Tenor Mark le Broq gave us a well-observed portrayal of Mao both as an ageing statesman on the verge of death and in his ‘miraculous’ restoration to youth and health as he remembered the pleasure of the early years with the dancer who became his wife.

Nixon in China, after receiving mixed reviews in its early years, is now regarded as one of the great works of the American repertory. Not being an American, I’m left wondering quite what was the point of the piece. It’s great theatre, some of the time, extremely tedious at others: maybe I’m simply not sufficiently politically savvy to have an informed opinion? Maybe this tedium/ quiet subsidence into nothingness was the point? It was Adams’ first opera: I’ve not seen any others, but I’m not inspired to rush out and find them. I’m glad to have seen the piece and warmly appreciative of Scottish Opera’s courage and expertise in bringing it to Scotland for the first time this century. The first-night audience was very warm in their applause at the final curtain, acknowledging the quality of the piece in both its design and execution.

Nixon in China, Scottish Opera Theatre Royal, Glasgow Untill 22nd February, Then Transfers to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. 

Mary Woodward Review

Vamos Theatre Dead Good, The Studio, Edinburgh, Review

Vamos Theatre Dead Good

**** (4 stars)

Bob and Bernard have both been told they have terminal illnesses. Bernard’s wealth can’t buy him a cure, and Bob’s wife can’t bring him back to health. When the two men meet at their local hospice, their initial antipathy develops into a warm and caring friendship in which each helps the other to face up to, and make full use of, the time they have left to them.

Using full-face masks, Aron de Casmaker, James Greaves, Angela Laverick and Joshua Patel not only play Bob, Bernard, Marie and Shefali but also the whole host of people with whom Bob and Bernard come into contact at the hospice and during their outrageous forays into the world outside. Racing around in a vintage sportscar, paddling at the seaside, dining at the Ritz, or simply misbehaving and teasing each other in the hospice garden, the two men develop a close and loving relationship, and their care for each other lasts to the very end of one man’s life – and beyond.

The wordless action is underpinned by an excellent soundtrack created by Janie Armour, and there is clever use of projection to allow Bob and Bernard to race around the country, taking selfies as they go. Tiny gestures and alterations in body language reveal so much about what is going on inside each character as we see the progress of their illnesses and the past times they remember. Not everyone they meet treats them kindly, but the extraordinary love and care they receive [and give to others] at the hospice is a celebration of all that is best in humankind.

At one point, Bob’s wife texts him because he’s still not come home: Bob replies Bernard needs me. His wife asks what are you doing?: to which he simply replies Living. It’s a lesson to us all…

In a play which delicately mixes great pathos and ridiculous schoolboy humour, writer/ director Rachel Savage invites us to face up to and talk about one of the greatest taboos of our time. Death comes to us all, but many of us choose to pretend that we will live for ever. I hope I would face up to a terminal diagnosis with the courage and humour Bernard and Bob display as, supported by each other and the loving care of hospice staff, they are determined to go laughing into that Great Unknown that awaits us all.

Vamos Theatre Dead Good, The Studio, Run Ended, UK Tour Continues.