THEATRE VISITS

Sue
                      WelsfordTheatre visits followed by a chat over a cup/glass of something in a nearby café. We also meet periodically in a pub/café in Islington to discuss the plays we have seen in more detail.


Group Coordinator: Sue Welsford (click to contact)
When

Theatre visits normally about once a month. Often choosing midweek matinees when we can get 'senior' concessions and reasonable group rates. Discussions every six weeks or so.
Where

We go to a range of theatres: local (for example Arcola and the Park Theatre), subsidised (for example the National) and West End (often to see transfers from small 'off West End' theatres).

Our programme of forthcoming visits is shown below. Suggestions from group members for future visits are most welcome.

Although all the tickets we have booked for the following plays have now been allocated, we often have a few 'returns' from members and can sometimes get the odd extra ticket from the theatre. So if you are  particularly interested in seeing any of these plays, do email and we can put you on our waiting list.

Theatre Visit Discussions
Discussion group
We hold regular informal meetings to share our views on what we have been to see recently. The date of our next discussion meeting is:

See Beacon, the Members' System, for the dates for these discussions.






Theatre Visits: Programme
The full lookahead date information is now visible in Beacon, the Members' System. The link to Beacon for iU3A members is here. Once you've clicked there, sign in with your personal details; then on the Home page click on 'Calendar of meetings and events'. You'll see all groups listed there, or at the top line next to 'Group', in the gap select the drop-down menu arrow; scroll down to Theatre Visits; click that, then only the dates for Theatre Visits willl be shown.

Our Recent Theatre Visits
Brief EncounterThe June theatre visit was to see Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, adapted by Emma Rice. It appears to have been rather a marmite event — members seemed either to love it or hate it. 







Absolute HellOur May visit was to see Absolute Hell at the National Theatre. It was first produced in 1952 as The Pink Room, and was heavily criticised by critics and the public as out of touch with post-war optimism and insulting to the British people, with its depiction of feckless wasters and loutish debauchery in a Soho club. But a revised version in 1987 was warmly received, and revived at the National Theatre first in 1995 and again now. To an extent it is still a play of its time, depicting convincingly how the characters were trying to escape the reality of their lives — both personal crises and the last days of the Second World War. The testimony of a military officer returning from having seen the recently liberated concentration camps provides one of the most dramatic jolts in the play, the brutality of the real world contrasting pointedly with the self-obsessed posing and promiscuity at the club. The play is perhaps less a conventional drama than a series of striking tableaux; there is little
narrative or development of character, but rather many memorable vignettes illustrating the various players’ uninhibited attempts at escapism, and their interactions. Despite its dramatic limitations, this is a powerful study of how people try to deal with serious levels of stress on many fronts, delivered with sympathy and understanding. (Jeremy Stickings)

Our first April visit was Caoline or Change Apr 18to Hampstead Theatre to see Caroline, or Change. Sharon D Clarke rightly holds centre stage as the eponymous hard-working exploited maid working for a Jewish family in 1960s Louisiana. Caroline is single-handedly trying to bring up her family of four children on 30 dollars a month with old-fashioned respect for family values when her new mistress tells her that she can keep the loose change swilling around in the pockets of the clothes she loads into the washing machine each day. Although the gesture is casually and kindly meant, it offends Caroline’s sense of dignity and self-worth. The Jewish family is represented sympathetically while taking Caroline for granted and having no appreciation of her situation. The second wife (Caroline’s mistress) and her parents, New York liberals, contrast with the old style Southern husband.

The musical explores 60s America with depth and sophistication with Clarke giving a sublime performance enhanced by her extraordinary voice. With a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, this sung-through musical shows America with a hunger for equality; her friend Dottie is in night school and her daughter Emmie is politically engaged. Caroline, however, resists the mood of upheaval surging around her. It’s a thought-provoking, exuberant portrayal of a country on the brink of radical change.

The set economically depicts the upper level of the house and Caroline’s basement domain inhabited by animated kitchen appliances. I particularly admired the Supremes-like trio representing the sounds of Caroline’s radio. Written by Tony Kushner in 2003 and directed by Michael Longford with a rich score by Jeanine Tesori incorporating many styles of music, Caroline or Change is a terrific show with the dynamic Sharon D. Clarke as its star. (Jill Coningham)

Another April visit was to the Park Theatre to see Pressure, whPressureApr18ich will be transferring to the West End later this year. Who’d have thought that a play about the vagaries of the British weather could be so riveting? But the subject of this play wasn’t any old weather forecast — as we were reminded several times, hundreds of thousands of lives depended on it. All the action takes place in a hastily-prepared room which was to become the nerve centre of the meteorological forecast for the English Channel on D-Day 1944.

Arriving on Friday 2nd June 1944 in glorious sunshine, crack Scottish meteorologist Dr James Stagg, played superbly by the play’s writer, David Haig, immediately establishes himself as an intense, humourless, meticulous man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, given that it’s General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) who is calling the shots and wholly reliant on knowing the weather conditions for Monday 5th June, he insists on involving his own forecaster, Krick (Philip Cairns), who claims, on seemingly flimsy evidence, that the weather is set fair. The two forecasters are never going to agree, hence one of the pressures of the title.

As if opposition from his American counterpart is not enough, Stagg is also on edge at the imminent arrival of his second child when his wife’s first birth had been so fraught with difficulty. Just when you think you’ll be engulfed by the intensity, Haig comes up with one-liners so funny you laugh out loud. Pressure is a hugely involving play which takes you on an emotional roller-coaster. (Celia Ballantyne)


The Birthday PartyIn March we went to the charming Harold Pinter Theatre to see The Birthday Party, Pinter's second full length play. The play is set in one room of a boarding house. All the action takes place in this one room, but the direction is so skilful that the room acquires different atmospheres throughout the play, and the simple set was a credit to the stage manager.

The peace and tranquillity of the boarding house is turned into turmoil when two unexpected and uncharacteristic guests suddenly arrive to stay. The action centres around Stanley, a longstanding resident of the boarding house, and there is a birthday party thrown for him. However, the party results in total chaos and horror. We never find out exactly why the unexpected guests have come, and are left wondering right until the curtain falls. The level of suspense is extraordinary.

The six characters are perfectly cast and each of their performances is West End acting at its very best.
It was a privilege to see this wonderful production and when we met afterwards to discuss the play we all agreed it was terrific, and we would really recommend it! (Sarah Ninian)

Long Journey Into NightFebruary
Long Day's Journey into Night: All Mary Tyrone yearns for is a “proper home”, to replace the shabby beach house in which she has spent her lonely summers in the company of her miserly husband James, her philandering older son Jamie and her TB-infected younger one, Edmund. During a roller-coaster three-hour plus bravura performance, throughout one long day’s journey into the night, we, together with the foursome on stage, live through a lifetime of disappointment, intense love, loss and a yearning for salvation.

A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play completed in the early 40s but first performed after his death, is currently playing at the Wyndham Theatre, with Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in the lead. In meticulous and intimate detail, the stories of this family and its four principals unravel. We, the fly-on-the-wall audience, peel away one layer at a time to descend further into their familial and individual depths of guilt and sadness at lost opportunities.

The elephant in the room, setting the tone and moving the action forward, is Mary’s addiction to morphine. She is back from a sanatorium and treatment, and everyone on stage mentions how well she looks and behaves: an expression of hope that dissipates as the reality of her addiction becomes clearer, first to her sons and husband and, ultimately and despairingly, to herself.

Lesley Manville’s towering performance is breathtaking, and she dominates the stage portraying a victim with a steely backbone, and a loving mother who is utterly self-absorbed by her own fate of loss and abandonment. Lesley Manville is the consummate tragic heroine; whose story moves us profoundly to reflect on our lives too. She moves effortlessly from self-pity to self-delusion; from shrill accusations of her husband for neglecting their union and her health, to an eleagiac and tender description of falling completely and utterly in love. Jeremy Irons’ presence on stage is elegant; he moves with the effortless grace of a born actor (a role he also portrays on stage, except that O’Neill accuses him of “selling out” his craft for the attraction of money). He is the consummate artist with the power to portray different people at the same time, depending on the interlocutor. He is tender and accusatory toward his wife, their love for each other is palpable, but his disgust at her relapse and at the life they lead together is also obvious and very raw. Irons is utterly contemptuous of his older son, but very caring and apologetic when it comes to Oliver and his ill health. His nuanced performance is a perfect counterpart to Manville’s. Between them, they dance a story of a life that has produced two immobilized sons, one by drink and licentiousness and the other by confusion and disease.

In a very similar manner to Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this play carried me in a maelstrom of emotions and deep empathy unto the stage. I was present in the room, I could feel the excitement of their first meeting, I was afraid to remain alone with the demon of more morphine for company… in short, I was there every step of the way. Thanks to O’Neill, the amazing acting ensemble, and the IU3A Theatre Group, this was an experience of a lifetime. (Edna Kissman)


 Cell matesThe January visit of the Theatre Visits Group was to Hampstead Theatre to see Simon Gray’s play “Cell Mates”, infamous as the play from which Stephen Fry fled whilst having a breakdown. It details the story, and aftermath, of George Blake, a convicted Soviet spy, from Wormwood Scrubs to a life in exile in Moscow. Blake befriends another prisoner, an Irishman Sean Bourke, who edits the prison newspaper and who, after his own release, engineers Blake’s escape; the pair end up in Moscow in the custody of the KGB living in a flat with a housekeeper. The set is organised to make clear that the pair have swapped one set of cells for another. Gray uses the device of having them dictate their memoirs to fill in the detail of their story, while the action on stage reflects the pair’s very different emotional responses to their new imprisonment far from home.

Cell Mates started life as a radio play and is a wordy and slow-moving drama apart from a few cartoonish episodes with the very accommodating and sympathetic KGB agents. Essentially it is a play about betrayal; Blake betrays country and family and finally it is revealed that his friend has been virtually imprisoned in Moscow by Blake’s wish to keep his friend with him. One’s sympathies are with Sean, who is kind and accommodating to the whims of the older man but who drowns his sorrow at the waste of his life in a bottle. I am glad I saw it but it has not really improved with age and one wonders what the 95-year-old Blake, still living in Moscow, thinks about the mutation of his dream world into the Russia of Putin. (Rosie Walden)

FolliesOur December visit was to the National Theatre to see 'Follies' by Stephen Sondheim, which is now considered a masterpiece. It is ostensibly an evening party given in 1971 by the old theatre impresario for all his Follies girls from 1918 - 1941, when the Follies closed. Most of them haven't seen each other for at least 30 years so the excitement amongst them all is palpable. The story settles on two married couples, Sally and Buddy, and Phyllis and Ben. When they all met up in 1941 the girls were roomates at the theatre and the boys were their dates. It all seemed to be going along smoothly, except that Sally realised she loved Ben and not Buddy, whom she subsequently married. Over the following 30 years Sally and Buddy lived the life of a salesman, travelling and settling in city after city, winding up eventually in Phoenix, Arizona. But Sally is not happy and longs for the Ben she lost to Phyllis. Meanwhile Ben and Phyliis have become a smart, sophisticated NY couple, he working for the UN and various Foundations and she educating herself at the Museums of NY. But real love seems to be gone.

Meanwhile the stage is covered with ghosts of the showgirls all dressed up in their finery, and the earlier foursome of Ben, Phyllis, Buddy and Sally. They never, of course, really meet up but there is an essence of memories in the air. This is one of the most chilling aspects of the show and takes us back to a time which is past and can no longer really be recaptured.

There are two types of songs: the Pastiche songs where the ex-Follies girls think back to their time in the Follies, and the book songs, which the two couples sing as a way of furthering their story. Follies has no interval — 2 hours and 20 minutes straight through. There are great production numbers and solo songs and the show is perfectly cast with not a weak link in them. At the end, some of the group came up to me and said 'why didn't you tell us it was so sad?' Nevertheless, the work of a master. (Howard Lichterman)

The November visit was to 'Oslo' at theOslo Harold Pinter Theatre. The play gave one an insight into the conflicts which arose and continue to arise between the Israelis and the Palestinians, at the same time showing the difficulties for the Norwegian government when mounting the ‘backdoor’ strategy in the early 90s. After low level negotiations by economists on both sides, diplomatic negotiations were eventually made possible. A Norwegian social scientist was responsible for orchestrating the talks; he did this in order to show how his theory could work in the management of conflict. For him face-to-face negotiations were a key element in the strategy, because the protagonists would understand the personal circumstances of the other side. His wife ‘moved on’ the talks with her diplomatic skill.

The humour was often bitter, for example when a joke about a tortured bear showed the power of Mossad. A tour de force was accomplished by the actor who played an Israeli diplomat, mimicking Arafat. The short-term failures and interruptions brought out the human frailties, including various eruptions on both sides. For us, as the audience, there is a poignancy, because we know there is still no peace, although some achievements were made via the Oslo accord. (Susan Caffrey)

What ShadowsIn October the theatre group saw the Park Theatre's production of Chris Hannan's play 'What Shadows'. Is Enoch Powell's later life worthy of attention? Only perhaps because of his 1968 speech prophesying that immigration would bring disaster. Delivered with uncanny verisimilitude by Ian McDiarmid playing Powell, the speech forms the play's central moment. But it should be met with a serious rebuttal. This, sadly, never really occurs. The task should have been performed by one of the cast's white protagonists. Instead, it is left to the lone black female character, who is undermined by being set up to doubt the basis of her own anger. Powell is given too easy a pass. The play frequently confuses concern over loss of identity and prejudice with racism and its crucial component of power. With some fine performances, the piece is a clever attempt to rehabilitate a disappointed egoist who chose to seek notoriety at the expense of those least well-placed to reply. (Chris Hignett)

LootOur annual iU3A visit in September was to the Park Theatre to see Joe Orton’s ‘Loot’ attracted a very large party of members, many of whom were revisiting the play 50+ years after its opening. This venue always enhances our enjoyment: the welcome; the explanatory talk beforehand; the intimacy of the theatre. Many of us had memories of the play, and the general agreement seemed to be that it was no longer 'outrageous'. My memories go back to the 1970 film, which I saw with my mother! I am sure she was outraged by the criticism of the Catholic Church. My recollections are of feeling threatened, of dark and sinister threads. I did not feel this at the Park until well into the second act. It was, though, an excellent production, strong on farce. But I missed some of Inspector Truscott's speeches — an essential part of Orton's message — as overpresented, at speed, I felt. But I was still very disturbed by the farcical treatment of the 'corpse' made all the more pointed by being played by an actual person. Joe Orton, who described the content of ‘Loot’ as being "the essential me" wrote the part of Inspector Truscott for his friend Kenneth Williams, who played the part in the opening production — originally titled Funeral Games — at Cambridge, and which was a flop. Williams realised he was miscast, and it is interesting to read his Diaries on the subject of Loot: 

Loot1"10th Feb 1965 — We rehearsed on the rewrites all day; Trying to find an ending; Trial and error game; 3 weeks to rehearse; 19th Feb 1965 — opening show went like a suet pudding. Playing this stuff is like trying to catch bath water."

Williams and Orton remained close friends however. They would lunch together in Lyons (remember Lyons?), though he resented the play's ensuing successful run. Years later, in 1980, Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary:  "I re-read the copy of the play which Joe gave me. Can't help wishing it had a better tag line, but certainly I think the final moment should have Dennis and Hal exchanging a conspiratorial nod and wink when Fay kneels in reverence." And so, a bow to Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams. (Susan Archer)

Lady DayJuly
— Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill told the story of Billie Holiday’s tragic life through music and words. It took us through Billie’s history of prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism, racism, imprisonment for narcotics offences and ill-treatment by the men she loved. The production was set in a small bar in Philadelphia, shortly before Billie Holiday died of cirrhosis and heart failure. Audra McDonald performed a range of Billie’s songs, including a standout performance of 'Strange Fruit’. This sombre, brave song from 1939 movingly tells of the horror of lynchings in the deep south of the USA. Nobody sang this song like Billie. Audra McDonald came close. The tables on the stage and in the first rows of the stalls, along with the excellent trio on piano, bass and drums, conjured the atmosphere of a small bar. I am a big fan of Billie Holiday and was surprised and impressed by the way in which Audra McDonald, an operatically trained soprano, captured Billie Holiday’s broken, destroyed voice. Standing ovations all round. (Maggie Howell)

On the TownIn June we paid our annual visit to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park to see On the Town. The Park has become expert at musicals these days and we are rarely disappointed. This delightful and exuberant musical dates from 1944 and is the first musical composed by Leonard Bernstein, at the time assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It has been revived a number of times over the decades and was turned into a film in 1949 with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
This revival used mostly a young cast who danced their socks off, maybe a little too much dancing v. story? The only star that I thought had the full measure of the times (after all these sailors had only one day in NY and might later be killed in the war), was Danny Mac as Gaby. Though all the others each gave something of their own to their characters. To see how times have changed, a ballet for two originally for a lonely sailor and a dream version of Ivy Smith, MissTurnstiles, was updated to a pas de deux between two men ... well it is 2017! There are some great numbers, some of the lyrics of which we will discuss at the next theatre discussion on 6 July. (Howard Lichterman)

Occupational HazardsThe May theatre visit was to Hampstead Theatre to see Occupational Hazards by Stephen Brown. This play was based on Rory Stewart’s 330 page account of his nine-month involvement in the administration of post-Saddam Iraq, working in two provinces in Southern Iraq. The book with its hundreds of characters was distilled into a play lasting about 100 minutes and with a cast of ten actors. There was a terrific performance from Henry Lloyd-Hughes as the idealistic Stewart and the set with its  sliding concrete walls and flickering neon lighting seemed suitably harsh and desert-like. One member of the group wrote that she thought that the ‘play was brilliant — thought-provoking, strong acting and very imaginative staging …'.

I did wonder whether it would have worked better as a radio play and notice that subsequently it was broadcast on BBC Radio ‘s Theatre on 4. (Sue Welsford)


For our April visit we saw Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie Glass Menageriedirected by John Tiffany. This was a multi-award nominated, top quality production and cast. The lighting and sound were understated and quietly effective. The direction was sensitive and the cast delivered sound performances of Tennessee Williams’s launchpad autobiographical play, first staged in 1944 and telling the poignant story of the Winfield family’s attempts in St Louis to survive and hang on to their social status after hard times. The mutually dependent family triangle is well played with the characteristic emotional highs and lows and Williams’s prose beautifully delivered. I enjoyed the first act and Cherry Jones’s southern matriarch was impressive. It wasn’t until the second half, with the arrival of The Gentleman Caller, that the play finally delivered real poignancy and Laura and Jim’s scene lit up the stage, by candlelight. Kate O’Flynn as poor Laura was movingly convincing.
I did feel that there was something missing from this performance but, not knowing the play very well, I couldn’t really put my finger on what exactly that was. (Jeanie Phillips)

TravestiesMarch: It was no surprise that this delightful production of Travesties at the Menier would subsequently transfer to the West End. Forty years after its initial debut, Tom Stoppard could make only the smallest of adjustments to this bubbly intellectual farce, which has lost nothing of its relevance to the world of today. Within a brilliant cast, Tom Hollander is truly outstanding, playing the central role of Henry Carr, who in his dotage has amnesiac fantasies about being a major player in the events of 1917, in contrast to the reality of having been simply a minor official in the British Consulate in Zurich. In actual fact, his role as Algernon in James Joyce's amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest, led to the play becoming the external framework of Travesties and the source of much of the comedy. News of the 1917 Russian Revolution found Lenin and his women still in Zurich, from whence he was soon to board his secret train through Germany, back home. Not quite simultaneously, Tzara, founder of "Dada" leading to surrealism, appeared in Zurich, but his incorporation into the structure of the story together with Joyce and Lenin creates a perfect backdrop for the dramatic questioning of all that contributes to History, Art and Politics. The Apollo, which first opened its doors in 1901 is a most charming example of a Victorian musical theatre and added much to the pleasure of our visit. (John Schrader)

In February a good number of us arrived at the Old Vic TheArtatre to see Yasmina Reza's play Art, translated by Christopher Hampton. Apart from going weak at the knees at the prospect of seeing Rufus Sewell live I had no expectations, having never seen the original production. Pretentious Serge, humourless Marc and jokey Yvan form a seemingly ill-matched trio of friends who've hit their midlife crisis and whose friendship threatens to fall apart, set off by Serge's acquisition of an (almost) pure white painting for an astronomical sum of money. Serious and laugh-out-loud by turns, this 20-year-old play still resonates with today's audience and 90 minutes flew by, helped by the superb cast of Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Key. Stand-out moments included Yvan's increasingly hysterical explanation as to why he'd arrived late for dinner (wedding planning, anyone?) and the seeming death throes of their friendship when the three men consume a bowl of olives with all the camaraderie of a firing squad. You could have heard a pin (or pip) drop. (Celia Ballantyne)

AmadeusOur first visit of 2017 in January visit was to see Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus (first produced in 1979) at the National Theatre. The production made excellent use of the stage facilities of the Olivier Theatre. The introduction of musicians on to the stage both supported the singers of extracts from Mozart’s operas and integrated the music with the play very well. The ensemble acting was very good and there was an outstanding performance from Lucian Msamati as Salieri. The play is very well crafted and provided entertainment of a high quality. In addition, two important issues were raised: the first was by Salieri when he reflected that although he had led a moral life and worked hard to develop his musical gifts from God his compositions would never match the genius of Mozart. His anger with God and the decisions he made after this realisation structure the second half of the play. The second issue was that of the relevance of the private lives of artists to their work. The afternoon was very enjoyable both for the quality of theatre and for the ideas that we were left thinking about. (Margaret Caistor)



For a record of our visits in 2016 please see the reports here.
For a record of our visits in 2014-15 please see the reports here.


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