Review: The Physicists

Written for Time Out

The Physicists

Swiss epic theatre writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s intriguing 1962 play, ‘The Physicists’, is both an impassioned argument against nuclear war and an absurd comedy involving the farcical murders of three female nurses. The result is like the awkward lovechild of Joe Orton’s ‘What the Butler Saw’ and Robert Wilson’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’. But, in Jack Thorne’s sharp and sophisticated new version, this strange Cold War tragi-comedy emerges as a moving argument for humanism over unethical progress.

Three physicists, Herbert Georg Beutler, Ernst Heinrich Ernesti and Johann Wilhelm Möbius, are in a mental asylum. Beulter and Ernesti appear to believe they are, respectively, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, while Möbius is regularly visited by King Solomon. But as conditions in the asylum worsen and Möbius, like his fellow inmates before him, is moved to murder his nurse, all three men are forced to reveal their sanity.

Thorne’s funny but earnest script gives coherence to Dürrenmatt’s difficult balance of mad humour in the first act and catharsis in the second. Robert Jones’s mischievous set, where light bulbs become brandy glasses, also cleverly marries lunacy and lucidity. Although she never falls off, director Josie Rourke does not always seem comfortable on this tightrope.

Of her cast, grotesquely skilful actress Sophie Thompson succeeds in making hunchbacked sanatorium head Dr Mathilde von Zahnd both character and caricature. But Justin Salinger (Beulter) and Paul Bhattacharjee (Ernesti) initially appear unable to humanise their mad personas. But as Dürrenmatt’s dialectic settles into a straightforward argument, Rourke and co produce an emotionally compelling second act.

Once something is learned it cannot be unlearned, we are forcefully told. It’s a potent lesson, even for a modern audience less in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

Runs until for more information go here


Belief walks in from the wings.

Written for the Church Times

In the spotlight: Messianic John (Trystan Gravelle), centre, with Stephen (Danny Webb) and Ruth (Geral­dine James) in the National Theatre production of 13  NATIONAL THEATRE/MARC BRENNER

“I HAVE always thought that the theatre is a kind of surrogate reli­gion,” The Guardian’s longest-standing theatre critic, Michael Billing­ton, says. “It has its disciples and its adherents.” He’s laughing, but we both know that there is some truth in this.

Western theatre is rooted in the miracle and morality plays of the 13th century; so religion and the stage have long been entwined. Billing­ton, per­haps one of theatre’s most devoted disciples, is not alone in seeing paral­lels between the rituals and roles of church and theatre.

For the new incoming artistic dir­ector of the Donmar Warehouse, in Covent Garden, London, Josie Rourke, her love of theatre was fuelled by her Roman Catholic up­bringing. “[It] is born from hours and hours spent in church. . . I read in church as a child, and the act of reading out loud and listening to others read out loud pro­foundly influenced me.” Her journey into storytelling began with perhaps the greatest story of all, that in the Bible.

Interpreting faith: right, left to right: William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and Lancelot Andrewes (Oliver Forde Davies) wrestle with the Bible in Written on the Heart

This influence works both ways; some find that their love of theatre develops into an appreciation of the rites of faith. This was certainly the case for my father, who started out training as a theatre director and ended up as the Bishop of Hertford.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee @ Donmar Warehouse

Written for Exeunt Magazine

A teenage cub scout is serenading me about an erection I’ve given him, the distracting qualities of which have made him crash and burn out of the first round of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Who knew that seemingly wholesome American musicals could be so raunchy? Clearly Tony Award winning Rachel Sheinkin whose sharp and occasionally filthy book injects some welcome edge into what is a sweet, if a little average, show.

Take note, audience participation – if that’s what you call my inanely grinning embarrassment – is actively encouraged. The judges, Rona Lisa Perretti (Katherine Kingsley) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (a very classy Steve Pemberton), pepper their witty improvised introductions of these intrepid audience spellers with the funniest of lines. Quite why Perretti is a sex bomb in a tight skirt is a mystery, as are Panch’s references to his Indian chief guide, but they make very amusing facilitators of what is a surprisingly cut throat event.

Six children are battling it out to get to Nationals. All are ‘unique’, all slightly strange; they are an eclectic bunch each with their own idiosyncrasies, quirks which for the most part border on caricature. The dreamy Leaf Coneybear and the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (whose surname is her dads’ names mashed together) are particularly delightful and imaginative creations. But this level of cartoonish exaggeration places too high a barrier between the characters and the audience and in the end it is impossible to feel more than a vague feeling of fondness for these broadly-drawn children. The audience is never put in a position where they might actually start to care about their plight.

The closest to emotional engagement the production offers are Hayley Gallivan and David Fynn as dictionary-obsessed Olive Ostrovsky and ‘magic foot’ speller William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, dontcha know). Both independently and during their charming duet, these two nudge slightly ahead of the rest of this cast of energetic comedians, and at points actually tweak the heartstrings.

Director Jamie Lloyd and choreographer Ann Yee jazz up an inherently static situation with sequences of movement that all click very nicely together. If the whole thing smacks slightly of ‘musical by numbers’, there are enough smart and funny moments to keep the audience happy. William Finn’s musical numbers are however distinctly pedestrian with lyrics so ‘everyday’ and unmemorable that they leave one puzzled that someone has bothered to graft song and dance to them at all. His melodies meanwhile splash around in the shallows resolutely refusing to lift off.

As such this Bee never quite takes flight, no matter how much the adorable cast pump into it or how many pompoms, twirling tables, chorus numbers or ribbons on sticks Lloyd and Yee throw into it. Affectionate and fun-filled it may be, but this musical comedy never quite surpasses the sum of its – undeniably perky – parts.

Runs until 2nd April 2011

The Best Of The Rest 2010

We all know the big un’s to watch out for in the first few months of 2010; Red, currently running at the Donmar Warehouse, the West End transfers of Enron and Jerusalem, Peter Brook at The Barbican which also houses the eclectic Bite Season for 2010 and work by the legendary Pina Bausch, Trilogy at The BAC and of course the London International Mime Festival.

But what about the smaller venues – not just the BAC’s or The Riverside Studios’ who consistently punch above their weight, but the truly off-piste theatres – The Blue Elephant Theatre, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Cock Tavern to name but a few.  Unlike the big theatres these small houses can only programme up to 3-6 months so no need to book miles in advance – these are things you can see in the very near future so check your pre-planned nature at the door and get a little trigger happy.

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