Category Archives: Theatre

Always the bridesmaid?

Went last week  to see Pinter’s No Man’s Land at London’s Aldwych Theatre, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

Patrick Stewart had lost his voice and so his understudy took over.

At the end of the play. Ian McKellan came forward and praised the performance of the understudy. And quite rightly as it was excellent.

Two points: as the cast were taking their curtain calls ( there were three) McKellan kept the understudy’s hand  in his – a brotherly gesture or an attempt to prevent the understudy from stepping forward to take a well-earned applause of his own? Still, that’s the theatre for you.

And the second point? McKellan got the understudy’s name wrong so here it is:  Andrew Jarvis.

If you’re interested in the plight of the understudy – always the bridesmaid never the bride – have a look at David Weston’s excellent book Covering McKellan. He spent a year as understudy to Ian McKellan when the latter was touring Lear.

Poignant but a story that has to be told. All part of the theatre canon.


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Bob Crowley’s sexy set.

I was lucky to see the production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Stratford, directed by Howard Davies who, sadly,has just died.

I returned Stratford  a week later having persuaded the Irish paper for which I was then freelancing that it should be reviewed, pitching  it to the paper as something that should be covered since the set designer was Irish, from Cork.

Bob Crowley was his name. Still is. And it was his set that mesmerised me:  a larger than life chest of drawers  out of which was spilling an array of white, gauzy female underwear.

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson were in the lead but I couldn’t take my eyes off that chest of drawers. Brilliant.

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Hisham Matar and the lost father.

His latest boook, The Return, has just been broadcast on BBC R 4.

It is heartbreaking and for that reason I don’t think I can now read the book. On the other  hand, it is so heartbreaking that I know I must read it.

The Return is  a memoir about his search for the father he fears he will never find.

In the Country of Men, a novel, is about a child’s search for his father. It ranks high in my chosen books and I have always been glad I read it. I am now reading it again.

It is about a marvellous man – the father in the story – who disappears from his home in Libya, is sought in Cairo and disappears again.

Since writing the novel, Matar has gone in search of his father again and so found out more about him.  The memoir is about loss and also about the man who has  been lost.  Lost forever? Only the writer knows.

The final sentences in the radio broadcast were so powerful that I was left alone, in the silent kitchen, the only other person there with me Hisham Matar.



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Two plays this week and one was a disappointment.

Went to see Richard lll in a small London theatre – the New Diorama Theatre near the Euston Rd.

The company specialises in physical theatre which seemed to involve a lot of miming and mock battles with mock swords when really the words had already made that clear. You can’t improve on Shakespeare’s words.

What’s good about this company is that it is both colour and gender fluid so we had six women in a cast of 19 and some of them playing male parts.One or two good touches included Richard’s physical defects become more pronounced when he was threatened.

No sets which was a challenge and actors wore their own clothes apart from the main female parts and they wore frocks of a certain vintage.

But despite all the company’s good intentions, the actor playing Richard remained unconvincing. Pity.


Our second outing was to the Royal Court – where else – to see  Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill.  Four women ( all over 70 the programme tells us) sit in a summer garden and hold conversations with each other about this and that. It’s the dialogue that is arresting. No one talks in full sentences and some of the characters begin their sentences in the middle and some never finish theirs. Every so often the  stage darkens and one of the characters appears alone and delivers a string of monologues about various disasters in which charred remains were reused as pieces of art. I think.

The funny thing is that after you’ve come out of the theatre you notice you yourself – and your companion – are speaking in half sentences that barely make sense. Listen yourself to see what I mean.



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What is it with older actors? Three women to watch.

Three theatre women worth watching:

Diana Quick: just finished a run at the Theatre Royal in Bath – The Big Meal. This is a challenging play by US writer Dan LeFranc which tells the story of a family through five generations with all the actors playing multiple parts.

Quick was married  to fellowe actor Bill Nighy for some 27 years and her daughter, Mary, is also an actor.

Diana Quick played the part of Margery Kempe in a radio play of  mine that BBC Radio broadcast a few years ago. I liked what I heard but I really wanted to see this character in the flesh. One day….

Clare Dunne: currently playing Hal in the Donmar Warehouse production of Henry lV parts l and ll.

Dunne has worked a lot with Gary Hyne’s Galway-based Druid Theatre Company.  I saw her play Major Barbara at the Abbey in Dublin and she gave it all that that part needed. The Donmar production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has an all-female cast and is the second of three such Shakespearean productions with Julius Caesar the first.

Henry lV runs till Nov 29


Eileen Atkins: currently playing the lead in The Witch of Edmonton at  the Swan Theatre, Stratford on Avon.  In a recent interview in The Observer, she was asked if playing a witch was typical casting for ” a mature actress.” And she replied: ” Of course. Even today  there’s a resentment  of what you call mature and I call old people.They are thought of as witches. ”  Atkins is seventy-something. Directed by Gregory Doran, she  plays the part of a woman , in 1621, who takes up witchcraft in self-defense. As the Observer notes “…tiresome, isolated, loquacious, she is the sort of neighbour you might prefer to avoid.”  Sounds a bit lke Margery Kempe to me. I’ll know next week – I have the ticket bought.

The Witch of Edmonton runs till 29 Nov



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Othello: ” I took by the throat…”

A few weeks ago I got up at 05:00. And why? In order to get to the National Theatre, in London, so that I could buy a £12 ticket to see Othello. These reduced tickets are available only on the day. When I got to the theatre at 07:30 there were already 15 people ahead of me in the Q – but by 09:30 I had my ticket. Success! Was it worth the dawn start? Absolutely.

The two main actors – Adrian Lester (Othello) and Rory Kinnear ( Iago)  were brilliant.


In fact, they were so brilliant that I am now going to see it all over again when the filmed version will be shown at a venue near you – and me.

The play is about jealousy and envy but there’s another interesting theme:Othello was a general, given the task of holding back the advancing army of the Ottomans, also known as the dastardly Turks. And there’s not a city in Christendom that doesn’t have a pub called the Turk’s Head, the theory being that the only good Turk was  a dead one.

Here are two images of the Turk’s Head in Dublin.



The film of the play is being shown this coming Thursday, Sept 26th. Click here to find a cinema near you that will be showing it.

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24 September, 2013 · 7:57 pm

Are films starring older actors nothing more than a vehicle for displaying jowls and wrinkles in a good light?

The Irish Times – Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to attract the silver haired to the silver screen


Do older people want to watch films starring their contemporaries or is age simply a vehicle for older actors gracefully to flaunt their wrinkles?

Titian’s The Three Ages of Man does babies, lovers and distant skulls. Nowadays it’s youth, middle age and “Jaysus, you’re lookin’ great,” the last phrase said in ill-concealed surprise. But with 60 the new 50 and with people aged 65-74 designated “young older”, according to the National Council on Ageing, as stage and screen actors age, so the focus shifts from the angst of gilded youth to the serenity of silvered seniors .

But while men have Lear, the dilemma for the ageing female actor has always been a shortage of older parts. Now, however, directors are dealing with the subject of age, and this is where Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp and Derek Jacobi come in. They’re all names you need in order to get older bums on seats.

So far we have had the full range of films and television series about ageing: comedy, for example, with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and films with music as a unifying theme in Song for Marion and Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman (who is now 75). The Man on the Train, a remake by the Irish director Mary McGuckian, offers psychological intrigue, and the BBC promises more frolicsome fun in the second series of Last Tango in Halifax. Finally, there’s Vicious, the upcoming ITV series starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years and, with a friend (Frances de la Tour), have to deal with the arrival of an attractive young man.

But age: is that it? Is it enough to portray an obnoxious old geezer in a raincoat (Terence Stamp in Song for Marion), a smiling lecher (Billy Connolly in Quartet) or a character who combines dimples and dementia (Pauline Collins in Quartet)? Is age simply a vehicle for older actors gracefully to flaunt their wrinkles and joke about having to get up to pee five times a night?

Dominic Campbell of the Irish organisation Age and Opportunity asks why only white people grow old on screen; people from other cultures may well have stories more interesting than those currently presented to us, he suggests. He has a point. In Song for Marion, Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the food trolleys and wheelchairs are pushed by black people. Change places, change colour and you have a story, but – and it’s a big but – would it be commercially viable?

With more people downloading films or hiring a DVD for a night in, cinemas are finding the competition increasingly difficult. A survey of UK cinemas found that, during the recent icy spell, their audiences dropped by 40 per cent. The receipts for Quartet were down 60 per cent, an indication that older audiences prefer to give treacherous footpaths a miss.

But once the funding, the stars and the director come together, it all works – nearly. In Last Tango in Halifax an older couple finally find love and engage in a bit of late-life madness, to the fury of their adult children. But the age thing just isn’t enough, so the episodes are padded out with family rows, a car crash and teenagers on drugs: all things an older viewer may well want to escape.

“Over the past 10 years, there’s been a move away from commercial, multiplex films towards lower-budget ones that are more literary and intelligent,” says Tristan Orpen Lynch, who has just finished an eight-year stint on the Irish Film Board. “These are the ones most likely to attract older people. Here in Europe, that idea is shared, which is how we get film-makers working in partnership with film companies in other countries.”

Intelligent storylines

Hoffman, in making Quartet, showed that a film starring older people could well represent an attractive outing for an older audience. As for older people choosing an intelligent storyline, this is where The Man on the Train comes in. Dealing only obliquely with age, it has the sort of quirky ending that leaves people querying what they have just seen, or think they have just seen. There’s no greater test of a movie than the aftershow arguments it provokes.

So what about the idea that a film starring older actors is nothing more than a vehicle for displaying jowls and wrinkles in a good light? “Cinema reflects life,” says Orpen Lynch. “Actors such as Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave are performing older roles because that’s what they are: older. They’ve stayed the course.”

This is certainly true of Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, who, in Song for Marion, perform their solos in voices that are loud and clear, a tribute to a lifetime of professionalism.

But Paul Williams, who directed Song for Marion, doesn’t see it as a film about older people particularly. “There are lots of different films about different sorts of people. Song is about everybody,” he says. Maybe that’s his intention, but the test will be in how the audience – of all ages – sees it.

Song for Marion is released on February 22nd

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Oh dear no. Having gone grey am I only to watch films like Babette’s Feast and The Whales of August? Absolutely wholly admirable pictures, but only part of the mixed diet I want as an older viewer, and have always wanted as a lover of cinema. And it is not only as an older viewer that I have wantd to avoid family rows, car crashes and teenagers on drugs – these staples of the soap opera and of a certain kind of drama have never appealed. Further, far from searching out elderly actors, one revels in the the beauty of the younger Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster or Penelope Cruz. And who wouldn’t love the drama and drive of Erin Brockovich, The Stuntman or The Devil Wears Prada, the power of Training Day – I haven’t seen this in full yet – or The Navigator? What about the suspense and sadness of Cry Freedom? The quiet appeal of The Girl with a Pearl Earring? Blue Velvet: fascinating. Once, I thought I had better find out what the fuss over Apocalypse Now was about – I did not want to watch most of this film but could not stop.

I search for films noirs, for black and white British gems, for silent classics or classics from Demy, Antonioni, Bergman. I welcome many more recent films like Bombon el Perro, Souzhou River, Treeless Mountain, Toyko Sonata or Las Acacias. But I have been known to collect disaster movies, and recently enjoyed Unstoppable.

I haven’t been to the cinema in a long time and watch my films on a reasonably sized tv screen, finding films to record on dedicated film channels and, to my pleasure, on TG4, which is the only mainstream channel that regularly gives space to films from, for example, Asia and Central and South America. The other channels stick mainly to endless repeats of presumably ‘commercially viable’ Hollywood or British movies which are either of little interest or which one has seen before.

I have boundless admiration for Maggie Smith and Dustin Hoffmann, but have also, fortunately, a much wider range of interest than just actors of their vintage: imaginative film-making involves themes of all kinds and actors of all ages.

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