Last night we went to the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds to see Waiting for Godot.
The play is one of my favourites but it was new to W. Fortunately, it was a very entertaining, well-paced production that maintained a lightness that complemented the dreamy surrealism of Beckett’s text. Michael Cabot has directed dozens of touring shows of which I have only heard good things but this was the first that I have seen. I will watch out for London Classic Theatre in future.
In some ways Bek Palmer's set design contained both my favourite and the most annoying aspects of the show. A heap of slates stands on a maze of stepping stones with a three trees hanging with their twisted roots visible. The stepping stones provide an inherent constraint on the characters' movement that provides subtle visual reward without resorting to acrobatics or dance. The whole effect is of a marshy wilderness. All this wonder, however, was fractured for me by the presence of some half a dozen darkly patinated mirrors in tarnished gilt frames. These alien objects made explicit the designer's view that the play is in a dream world whereas the text is deliberately ambiguous and part of its appeal is the duality of reality and imagination. Are we seeing a physical world or a shared fantasy inside a character's head? And which character's fantasy are we living? Both Vladimir and Estragon have unreliable memories.
Peter Cadden (Vladimir) and Richard Heap (Estragon) conveyed this uncertainty and the fractious love between the characters with magnificently understated clowning. They delivered Beckett's eloquence with complete conviction and an engaging air of bewildered frustration. When Pozzo arrives (played by Jonathan Ashley) he had the manner of a ringmaster whose sanity is fragile at best. It was a smart counterpoint to the bumbling intellect of the two tramps. Michael Keane gave a masterly performance as his servant Lucky but this too was a design and directorial misstep. Lucky's whiteface makeup, his absurd wig, and the extremity of his trembling were too obviously absurd for my taste. Keane's delivery of Lucky's rambling monologue was, however, the zenith of the show; his verbal energy and striking determination to complete his disturblingly incoherent yet comprehensible speech was a tour de force. Even the fifth member of the company (the oft overlooked messenger boy played by Sonja Zobel) gave a finely observed performance.
During the interview and after the show we discussed its meanings and values with two ladies in the row before ours. They had both seen it before about fifty years ago and they were still delighted by its mysterious contradictions and wilful obscurity. As was I.
I went to see Sweet Charity, the musical, at the New Wolsey Theatre. W saw it last week and loved it so I had high hopes but a couple of people (who are not keen on musicals) had been dismissive. The lead was played by Katie Birtill, who was new to me but has real star-quality. She grabbed my attention whenever she was on stage as the eternally optimistic unlucky Charity. She was, by turns, vulnerable, funny, and resilient. There really were no weak links in the casting. I liked James Haggie's rendition of her anxious swain Oscar, and Dan De Cruz's exuberant cult leader when leading The Rhythm of Life. The show's songs are now better known than the musical as a whole: most people know Big Spender and If My Friends Could See Me Now. Cy Coleman's music is masterly and it was pleasing to notice a little snatch of melody that would emerge as the song Love Makes Such Fools of us All in Barnum, about fourteen years after Sweet Charity. The use of actor-musician has become a rather tired trope of Peter Rowe's shows at the Wolsey but here it gained a new lease of life by confining such roles to minor parts and by having the instruments on the main stage only occasionally. With an unusually large cast of seventeen, this was very effective. Libby Watson's set design uses large electronic displays to generate bright illuminated advertising-style displays redolent of Times Square. The costumes were striking but unobtrusive and the realisation of the lake in the park that is the setting for some critical scenes was technical genius. On the whole this was a creative masterclass in all departments. Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields provided magnificent material and the Wolsey team have imbued it with glittering witty brilliance some fifty years later.