edited from PROMPT CORNER 01-02/2004
His Dark Materials / Pugilist Specialist / Honeymoon Suite /
The Taming Of The Shrew / The Tamer Tamed / The Pirates Of Penzance
Various venues
January, 2004

...There are no significant axes to grind about January’s shows.  I mean, “His Dark Materials: rest of critical world entirely right” won’t set the earth, or any parallel dimension, alight.  Yes, Nick Hytner has staged the piece wonderfully, and finally made decent use of the Olivier’s drum revolve.  Nicholas Wright’s adaptation deserves a little more praise than it received, not least for a remarkably astute approach to editing the trilogy of novels down: one doesn’t miss an entire world and a major supporting character that have been cut.  (Interesting, too, how very televisual the catch-up montage is at the beginning of Part Two of the diptych drama; it really needs a voiceover announcing, “Previously in His Dark Materials...”)  Anna Maxwell Martin is simply magnificent in the mammoth central rite-of-passage role of Lyra, and deserves to be hymned at far greater length than this.  And yet, Philip Pullman’s books are so rich and detailed that, especially in Part One, one wishes Wright and Hytner could find two minutes together for exposition-free drama.  Nevertheless, it comes as no surprise that the plays are to be revived again at the end of the year; you can’t afford to put on a production like this and then pack it away in tissue paper like a wedding dress, a glorious memento and no more.

I was a little disconcerted by the reticent audience response on the press night of The Riot Group’s Pugilist Specialist, wondering if perhaps its historical moment had now passed with the capture (and strange disappearance from the news) of Saddam Hussein.  Benedict Nightingale reckons so, albeit due less to news on the march than to the Edinburgh bends.  But what seemed so sharp and vibrant up there last August still does to most of us, to the extent that a return visit has been booked in at the end of the show’s current tour: any Londoners who missed it this time round can catch it at the Riverside Studios in late April/early May.

By then Richard Dormer will be in rehearsal for his new show, to be unveiled in Belfast in May.  But Hurricane will be long remembered by those who saw it.  Dormer’s physical resemblance to former snooker champion Alex Higgins is close enough; his vocal precision is amazing, reproducing the bizarre gumbo of Belfast, Berkshire and Blackburn in the Hurricane’s accent.  But his energy in that solo portrayal is breathtaking.  It’s the only way to do justice to such a character – the George Best of snooker, in effect – and I was glad of the reassurance that my fervent response to the show first time around hadn’t simply been due to my being a Belfast boy of the right generation.

Few felt quite as warmly as me about Honeymoon Suite at the Royal Court, however.  I thought it really rather special, notwithstanding Richard Bean’s recent success with Under The Whaleback.  Bean has always struck me as being at his best when he allows social comment to grow organically out of his characters, and here he delivers an unobtrusive sense of the 1950s, the Eighties and the present day through the personal and social standing of the three couples who inhabit the same hotel room.  Plus, of course, in having them weave through the space simultaneously, he pulls off a formal coup worth of Alan Ayckbourn, whose Scarborough base is just a few miles from the Bridlington setting here.

When Dominic Cavendish asked me to take part in a panel discussion for his excellent (if Flash-heavy) Web site www.theatrevoice.com on Gregory Doran’s RSC revivals of The Taming Of The Shrew and John Fletcher’s sequel The Tamer Tamed, I expected to be the ghost at the feast; instead, I found myself often the most favourable of the four reviewers around the mic.  The transfer from Stratford has not been kind, in particular to Fletcher’s play; it’s not surprising, either commercially or in terms of the material, that it’s only being staged twice a week in rep with the main Shakespeare piece.

It would be advisable to draw a discreet veil over Raymond Gubbay’s Savoy revival of The Pirates Of Penzance to partner the disappointing Peter Pan already running.  No, it would be advisable to weight its ankles and chuck it overboard into an ocean trench.  Let me simply say this: if musical director John Rigby thinks the way to make Sir Arthur Sullivan’s score more digestible to a modern stage-musical audience is to whack a leaden drum kit behind it and make it sound like Ronnie Hazlehurst’s big band in a 1970s TV seaside variety show, he might care to think again.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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