By The Bog Of Cats / The Earthly Paradise / Grand Hotel / Blithe Spirit
Various venues
November / December, 2004

Producer Sonia Friedmanís plan to change the face of West End press-night routine was finally realised as follows: the reviewers turned up on the official opening night of By The Bog Of Cats, which started at the usual early-press-night hour of 7pm.  Not a great deal of radical alteration in evidence, to the naked eye.  But look closer, and there still isnít.  (Except for the case of Quentin Letts, who affected to take Friedmanís desire for something more like a Broadway arrangement as grounds for breaking the embargo on review publication which is, er, a crucial part of said Broadway arrangement.)

Friedmanís stated aim was to relieve the pressure on actors of having a show stand or fall in critical terms on a single performance by inviting critics to any one of several preview performances but maintaining the embargo on publication before the official opening night  Itís been pointed out that, arguably, such a set-up could actually increase actorsí uneasiness by making them feel exposed to press judgement for several successive nights rather than getting it over in one go.  One suspects that the proposed changes might not have been made out of consideration for actors in general, but for stars in particular Ė indeed, for overseas stars such as Kim Cattrall in Whose Life Is It Anyway? and Holly Hunter in By The Bog Of Cats.

Playing the accent

And one can almost sympathise.  Almost.  Itís conceivable that Hunterís accent was having a bad night on ÖBog Of Catsí opening.  Conversely, itís possible that the accent was running in and would have been even more pronounced, so to speak, in preview.  I once heard an actor asked what part of Ireland his character in a play came from; before he could answer, a wag interjected, ďMost of it, judging by the accent.Ē  That holds true here: Hunterís character Hester Swane evidently comes from most of Ireland.  Also from a number of regions of Latin America and one or two parts of Sri Lanka.  Nor is the point that itís a bad accent per se.  Rather, Hunter seemed to be expending so much effort playing the accent that the language of her lines sufferedÖ in fact, less due to duff phonemes than monotonous cadence patterns.  For Marina Carr writes with intensity at the best of times.  Here, combining a version of Medea with the gloomier strain of Yeatsian Celtic imagery, itís a dense mix; and however physically committed Hunterís performance may be, if she loses the linguistic grounding, itís all for nothing.

A dense mix, but a dramaturgically lumpy one.  The Greek and the Irish simply donít blend here.  Carr has stuck to the classical Greek template in structuring her play almost entirely as a series of duets.  Each pair argue their conflicting cases, then another opposition is set up, and so on; the Act Two wedding scene stands out as being more lively not least because itís the only real ensemble segment in the whole evening.  Dominic Cooke directs with half an eye on that Greek formality, and Hildegard Bechtlerís stark design does nothing to counter it.  However, give such a spare, ritualised performance to Gaelic poeticism and itís all too easy to sound ridiculous.  The language needs to take flight, but here itís as earthbound as the dead black swan that Hesterís dragging along on her first entrance.  As more than one reviewer has noted, the business of the swan, followed by that of the spectral Ghost Fancier, is spitting into the wind of self-parody.  And when even an actress of the calibre of Bríd Brennan is called upon to suppress her usually audible Ulster twang beneath a broth of a cod-Oirish brogue, you know things have gone too far, never mind forcing her to dress and behave like the kind of character youíd find used for a throwaway gag in Blackadder.  None of these flaws Ė the accents, the static staging, the Hiberno-Hellenic conflict of dramatic register Ė is disastrous in itself, but they mount up, and the production really canít survive their aggregation.


Peter Whelanís The Earthly Paradise falls prey to a similar kind of accumulation of weaknesses.  The (narratively and logically) clunky memory-play structure would not be fatal if the central love-triangle plot were  played out in external events rather than in the various partiesí peculiar flavours of angst.  Like my FT foreman Alastair Macaulay, I am a committed fan of Alan Cox Ė in my case, ever since I saw him in 1997, in a brave 29-hour battle against mental and physical meltdown in the central role of the first modern-times revival of Neil Oramís The Warp, in which Cox was playing the protagonist who appears in virtually every scene of the ten-play cycle.  Here, the character of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is of a kind whose wry elements Cox can pitch beautifully as a matter of course, but which gives him little substantial help in finding an uninterrupted through line for his portrayal.  Nigel Lindsayís William Morris is endearingly blundering, but somehow not quite enough so.  And Saffron Burrows as Morrisís wife (and Rossettiís beloved) Janey is visually a pre-Raphaelite canvas come to life, but really ought to consider the option of delivering one or two of her lines without a nervous, febrile pant to show the stress under which Janey feels herself.  Robert Delamereís production is excellent in its sensitivity to the material but, as with much of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoodís artwork in various media, thereís a slightly awkward sense that, to appreciate the full emotional intensity, perhaps you had to be there.


Striking a happy emotional medium is likewise an issue with Grand Hotel at the Donmar.  Some reviews have considered that Wright and Forrestís musical sells out the astringency of Vicki Baumís novel by allowing happy, or at least momentarily hopeful, endings to a couple of the many plot strands.   Iíd look at it conversely: that this faintly relenting compromise is the best they could get away with in the circumstances.  A wholly unmodulated downbeat conclusion to a musical?  No, not even West Side Story, not even Sunset Boulevard.  The movie comparison of the latter example is apt, because Ė albeit that this musical in its original 1958 form anticipated the genre by a decade and more Ė the form here is effectively that of the 1970s disaster movie, in which the major calamity served simply as a portmanteau into which to pack the stories of various passengers bound for the Airport or folk on the umpteenth floor of The Towering Inferno or whatever.  The only difference is that the Grand Hotel in Berlin isnít subjected to flood or bomb attack or the like (although the overdone protest number by the militant shoeshine boys of the lumpenproletariat might feel like such a threat if it werenít so blatant).  Itís the grind of disappointment or tragedy for one character after another that gives the show its piquant flavour, and Michael Grandageís production does well to maintain this grimness whilst telescoping the whole business into an uninterrupted hour and three-quarters.  (Side note: review comments about the breathtaking backdrop mural serve to sort the sheep from the goats.  Like others, I would have mistakenly attributed the inspiration to George Grosz, because I too was in error regarding the paintingís central figure of Otto Dixís Journalist, the principal giveaway as regards graphical sources.)


Period can be a tricky thing to deal with directorially, especially when itís almost but not quite close enough to the present to get away with signalling few significant differences.  This is the problem which bedevils a number of aspects of Thea Sharrockís revival of Blithe Spirit, now at the Savoy.  Aden Gillettís behaviour as Charles Condomine is plausibly natural from a contemporary point of view in his response to being haunted by first one wife then both, but it lacks the brittle Cowardian poise from which much of the comedy derives.  Similarly, Amanda Drew is full of feline allure as the ethereal Elvira, but Ė unfashionable though it may be to point out Ė her accent marks her down as middle-class in a period and milieu when that was a stratum looked down on rather than up to.  Charles might well have had a passionate affair with such an Elvira, but he would never have married her.  Itís left to Joanna Ridingís Ruth to show both her co-stars the territory they should be inhabiting.  As for Penelope Keithís Madame Arcati, yes, sheís pretty much exactly as one would expect; consequently, I and my neighbour on press night, playwright Tim Fountain, found ourselves compulsively imagining the elderly medium being played not by Keith but by Fountainís H-O-T-B-O-I star Bette Bourne.  If Bourne hasnít already essayed the role, he surely must.  Iíd even sink a quid or two into the production myself, just for the joy of seeing it.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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