Wednesday 30 October 2019

30/10/19: I Do! I Do!, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Spanning half a century and featuring just two actors, this is a charming adaptation of a 1966 Broadway musical that was based on Jan de Hartog’s 1951 play, The Fourposter. Directed and produced by Joseph Hodges, this new version revives the timeless tale of a marriage in all its stages.

We join Michael and Agnes in their bedroom on their wedding night, young and very much in love but also inexperienced and nervous at the prospect of spending their lives together. Fast-forwarding through the years to reveal the progression of their relationship, the show alternates between dramatic vignettes and vibrant, clever songs.

Gemma Maclean and Ben Morris carry the entire performance, animated and energetic enough to fill the stage by themselves. They are accompanied only by musical director Henry Brennan, who offers dextrous live keyboard interpretations of the songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.

The unfussy-but-detailed set design by Emily Bestow wisely puts the bed at its centre, flanked by a dressing table on the left and a writing desk (Michael is a novelist) and chaise longue on the right.

There’s subtle humour and plenty of warmth, but – keeping sentimentality at bay – there are also barbed observations and arguments. One of the funniest moments, built around the song “Nobody’s Perfect”, shows the bickering couple reading from pre-prepared lists of each other’s faults. We learn that she wears cold cream in bed, while he makes a strange sucking noise in his sleep. There’s also an amusing running joke about a “God is love” pillow that Agnes is fond of and which Michael cannot stand...

The scenes flow sequentially but the plot strands aren’t always resolved. Instead, each scene presents a new snapshot of their lives. This was a little frustrating in the case of the bombshell that ends the first half. You really want to find out how they respond to this crisis, and then... time marches on and it’s as if that scene never happened. Yet despite this slightly disjointed aspect, the narrative gives Michael and Agnes surprising emotional depth. Indeed, the ups and downs of their journey through marriage are frequently poignant and touching. We join them as they encounter the joys and fears of parenthood. We witness the rise of Michael’s writing career and see how his success affects them both differently. And we observe their mixed feelings at their daughter’s wedding as the whole cycle begins again.

If there’s a flaw it’s that the show supposedly spans the 50 years from 1890 to 1940 – a period encompassing World War I and the start of World War II – but you get little or no sense of wider events unfolding beyond the walls of their bedroom. Instead, the focus is on how time passes for the couple, which makes perfect sense given the theme, but it does seem like a missed opportunity to infuse their situation with additional gravity.

That minor point aside, it’s consistently entertaining and extremely well delivered: a successful fusion of music and narrative that makes for a compassionate study of the miracle of love.


Wednesday 9 October 2019

09/10/19: A Modest Little Man, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Leader of the Labour Party during World War II, Clement Attlee was elected as UK Prime Minister in 1945 and went on to create the welfare state. Directed by Owain Rose, this gently comic character study tells the story of an unassuming man who ended up playing a pivotal role in shaping post-war Britain.

As the title makes clear, Attlee was not an outlandish figure. Entirely at odds with Winston Churchill’s flamboyant manner (and indeed the kinds of world leaders we see today), his seemingly cautious approach steered clear of personality-based politics and was driven by firm ideological beliefs.

His understated nature presents a challenge for writer Francis Beckett and lead actor Roger Rose, who place this “little mouse” at the centre of the narrative. It’s a testament to their success that a man of so few words (except when discussing cricket) begins to emerge as quietly fascinating.

Portrayed brilliantly by Lynne O’Sullivan, Clement’s devoted wife Violet is far less reticent than her husband and partially narrates the play. The rest of the small cast prove to be hugely versatile, too. Churchill is memorably evoked by Silas Hawkins, one of three actors each tasked with handling multiple parts. The clever writing slowly reveals Attlee through the affection, respect and frustration felt by those around him, rather than through his own actions.

The simple set – an office desk and chairs – is suitably minimal and restrained, in keeping with the PM’s self-contained, low-key introversion.

At times the pacing feels a little slow, but perhaps this is merely a reflection of the more formal modes of discourse employed in the 1940s. The end of the first half seems oddly timed, too, with no one in the audience realising that it was the interval. It might have made more sense to suspend the action at a more distinctive moment, but this is necessarily a subtle narrative without instances of high drama. That’s not a criticism, either: what it lacks in terms of big gestures, it more than makes up for with charm.

Where the show excels is in its mild but insightful wit. The scene in which the Attlees meet King George VI (Clive Greenwood) is masterful in its articulation of social awkwardness. And while A Modest Little Man works as an effective history lesson, it’s also highly informative about the world we live in now. There are shrewd observations with obvious resonance in contemporary politics, such as a nod to the foolishness of holding a referendum. Plus, there’s plenty of scheming, as you’d expect, with key members of the Cabinet debating the suitability of the leader while attempting to further their own careers. Some things, it seems, never change.