Acting Plays Theatre

Lots of Prime Ministers: One Queen.

Reading this post you’d be forgiven for thinking the play I’m working on is called, ‘Churchill’ … actually it’s called ‘The Audience’.


Here is a diary excerpt:

October 4th 2016.

It’s the first day of rehearsal at The Maltz Theatre, Jupiter, Florida. We, the cast, arrived yesterday, Most of us from out of town. Just shy of three hours on the plane from New York. I was in a window seat with a young mother and a one-year-old baby in her arms next to me. The baby was as good as gold except he did persistently kick me in the ribs, presumably unintentionally. I pretended not to notice and when the mother apologized I pretended not to mind. I was returning to British mode (from expat mode). We British would rather suffer in dignified silence than inconvenience a stranger. I used the time to go over my lines as Sir Winston Churchill.


One scene only. Where he encounters the young Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is the occasion of their first private audience together with she as monarch of the United kingdom and Dominions. It took place in 1954. Sir Winston was then 78 years old.



For research I visited the Cabinet War Rooms in London, and I’ve watched in no particular order Robert Hardy, Albert Finney, Timothy Spall, Brendon Gleeson and Michael Gambon as Churchill. Oh, and the great man himself of course in all the available speeches.


All very fine actors, none of them actually impersonate the great man, but all of them copy some of his vocal characteristics, the well known rhythms and cadences, Gambon uses the lightest touch. Finney is my favorite for character.

th-4On the morning of the first day of rehearsals we have the meet and greet. As ever, it is astonishing how many people a theatre employs. The Maltz is a theatre under speed. By which I mean they put up plays and musicals in two and a half weeks, run them for 17 performances and that’s it. Get in; get out. I like it.

The Audience is a big play and by far the biggest challenge falls to Karen MacDonald who is playing the Queen and is onstage the entire show with some astonishingly quick costume changes as she moves from Elizabeth R in her 8os to her 20s to her 60s and back and forth in this non-linear telling of the story of Britain’s Prime Ministers and their constitutionally un-mandated, but constitutionally effective weekly meetings with the monarch.

Photo by Alicia Donelan Karen MacDonald as Queen Elizabeth II

We read through the text and you can feel confidence in the room as everyone, without saying so, agrees that it’s a fine cast and that the play has indeed been well-cast and with a bit of luck we’ll have a fine production. Of course this is the first time we’ve heard each other read and at this point none of us can do more than sketch an indication of where our performances might arrive. But everybody approves of everybody, everybody hopes everybody will come up with more, and everybody understands that on day one everybody is both confident and insecure. We all know that many things can go wrong in a rehearsal period. It’s a bit of a miracle that anything ever gets produced anywhere. But it’s a good start and baring acts of God we should have an excellent production on our hands.

In the afternoon we begin to pick the play apart and an amusing discussion follows on the cultural, social and political differences between our two great nations. Lou Jacob is directing and he seems to know more about British Constitution than I do. Hardly surprising, because no-one can really claim to be an expert, least of all anyone from Britain. Why so? Because there isn’t one. A British Constitution that is. At least not one that anyone has written down.

Photo by Alicia Donelan with Peter Simon Hilton, Colin McPhillamy, Henny Russell, Karen MacDonald, Rod McLachlan, Skye Allysa Friedman, Mark Dold, Paul DeBoy, Peter Galman

Oddly, well it seems odd given the themes of the play, tonight is the U.S. vice-presidential debate. Getting back to the digs from rehearsal I turn on the telly. One of the cable news anchors is interviewing a couple of talking heads, “Is he gonna go offense or defense tonight?” the anchor asks. Before the talking head can answer, the anchor asks two other questions, answers the first question, then answers it again with a contradiction and then opines that it shouldn’t be left too long before one of the candidates “throws the first punch”. Then, in a further melange of sporting metaphors he announces a commercial break and we cut to a picture perfect family having a barbecue amid gently rolling hills and a mellow voice-over artist is telling us to soothing, mildly optimistic music, that spingo-dingo-mingo is not right for everyone and that side effects can include halitosis, bankruptcy and allergy to popular culture. I deploy the only sanction I can and turn the telly off, taking note that five years ago I could still have played the Dad in the commercial, now I’m the right age for the foxy Grandpa. Time flies in entertainment. Still it’s fun to be back in Florida.

Assorted production pix & trailer here

Photo by Alicia Donelan Mark Dold, Gabriel Zenone, Karen MacDonald

And then there was a hurricane …

Photo by Peter Simon Hilton. Colin McPhillamy as Winston Churchill
Theatre theatre criticism

What if a new Tennessee Williams play came to light?

When I was fifteen I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie. It was an experience that opened the door on poetic language for me.

Cherry Jones as Amanda, and Zachary Qinto as Tom, in The Glass Menagerie
Cherry Jones as Amanda, and Zachary Qinto as Tom, in The Glass Menagerie

When I was sixteen I saw A Streetcar Named Desire in the West End. Claire Bloom played a fragile Blanche, Martin Shaw was a virile Stanley, Joss Ackland a sympathetic Mitch, and Morag Hood a sisterly Stella. Doors on acting — and windows too — opened then.

In the second year of acting training at Central in London, it was American plays. Even though I was playing Harry Brock in Born Yesterday, I was still among those who would revisit Streetcar in empty rehearsal rooms and practice yelling ‘Stella!’, and then, ‘Stella… Steeee… eeee….elllaaaa!’


I heard a story once from Professor Charles McNulty about how, unable to get into a musical next door, he stumbled into the very first preview of The Glass Menagerie in Chicago, starring Laurette Taylor of luminous legend. He spoke of the stunned silence at the end. That first audience was small, but he had been so gripped by the play that he had ended up kneeling between the seats leaning forward, intent on not missing a word.

A student production of Camino Real, directed by Tony Falkingham, was a revelation. A kind of underworld answer to the transcendence of Our Town, or the poetic portraiture of Under Milkwood.

When the National Theatre in London did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I attached my old American friend, Jim Franz, who’d been to college on a sports scholarship, as football consultant to the production. Jim recorded his thoughts and insights on a tape and sent it over. When Ian Charleson as Brick, said “…all summer long we’d pass those long, high balls that couldn’t be intercepted by anything but time…” the speech was transformed.

Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Becky
Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat


As we all know the great trio of Menagerie, Streetcar and Cat are foundational in the canon of world 20th century drama.



And now here is Baby Doll at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.

Susannah Hoffman as Baby Doll. Photo Richard Termine.
Susannah Hoffman as Baby Doll. Photo Richard Termine.

The movie of that name was derived from Williams’s one-act play Twenty Seven Wagons Full of Cotton. The movie starred Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, and Carol Baker in the title role, and is a dark not-so-funny tale of revenge.

Williams returned to the theme and the characters in more than one version including another one-act called, The Long Stay Cut Short or The Unsatisfactory Supper, experimenting with different perspectives on the story.

The production at the McCarter in a new version, developed by artistic director Emily Mann (who also directs) in partnership with French playwright Pierre Laville, elevates the nuance in the story, finds all the Williams elements of passion, desire, desperate tension and latent violence, and is played with pitch-perfect subtlety by its cast.

Full disclosure; Trish Conolly (Three Blanches, a Stella, one Maggie, a Laura, an Amanda, an Alexandra del Lago and an Esmeralda) plays Aunt Rose Comfort inhabiting a storyline that embodies one of Williams’s “… birdlike women without a nest…” —nibbling at — “… the crust of humility…” is a close personal friend of mine, sometime professional colleague, and er yes, also related to me by marriage.

Patricia Conolly as Aunt Rose Comfort. Photo Richard Termine.
Patricia Conolly as Aunt Rose Comfort. Photo Richard Termine.

The rest of the cast (who are all new to me, and to none of whom I am related) are: Bob Joy, who plays to the life an uncouth man of the reddest neck, Dylan McDermott who, poised and dangerous as the Sicilian, commands the stage, and Susannah Hoffman, who as Baby Doll gives us magnificent work in a detailed performance that should be seen everywhere.

Brian McCann playing the cameo policeman brings with him the danger of the 1950s Delta. And special mention must be made of the real live chicken who plays ‘Fussy’ in her stage debut.

From the set, which is both substantial and ghostly, to the evocations in the lighting, to the delicate underscoring of the soundscape, to authentic costumes and props which complete a production rare in its unity of accomplishment across all elements, we get as exciting an evening in the theatre as if Williams himself had finished this text yesterday.

I could say more about the acting from the entire cast, but I won’t, beyond that it is about as superb as I’ve seen. But here’s the thing. This play (as with all Williams) would be easy to do badly.

Even the finest actors benefit from inspired direction. Here, the play is impeccably directed. Rhythmically it finds variety, and quicksilver turns, in tone, pace and mood. Good direction leaves clues in standout performances. Great direction is scarcely visible because the ensemble takes precedence. Kudos to Emily Mann.

In the ephemera that is regional theatre who knows what happens to this play after the 11th of October 2015, but if you can get to Princeton before then and get a ticket, do yourself a favor.

It’s actually like seeing a new play by Tennessee Williams

Acting Sholom Aleichem Theatre Theordore Bikel Trish Conolly


I met Theodore Bikel in 2006 when he, a sprightly 81 year old, and that young actress of my acquaintance Trish Conolly, were doing a two-handed play at the Coconut Grove Theatre in Miami. It was a domestic comedy about, among other things, the physical inconveniences of advancing years.

Scan 3

In Trish Theo found an acting partner who could match him on a stage, and I know that he loved working with her. Tamara, to whom he was married until her sudden death in 2012, and I, a bit like a couple of boxing coaches, would watch them rehearsing from the orchestra seats of the theatre. We would exchange whispered comments with each other, commissioning each other to deliver delicate notes to our respective partners. We all four became friends.

Theo died a little over a week ago.

He was a public figure. His C.V. as an actor covers all mediums at the highest and most celebrated levels in the profession; his prolific musicianship in live performances and recordings; his abilities as a linguist — he could sing in 21 languages and spoke five or six fluently; his co-founding of the Newport Folk Festival; his abilities as an autobiographer and as a raconteur; his tireless support of the Israeli cause, and his fearless speaking out against injustice; his 10 year presidency of the American Actors’ Equity Association (during which time he suggested the creation of the Manhattan Plaza). All this and more — including his 2,000 plus performances as Tevye the milkman – all this was just a part of who he was.

I did not meet him as any of the above. I knew him first as a big-framed, big-hearted man, with a persistent, in fact constant, deliciously salty sense of humour.

We last saw him at a screening of “Theodore Bikel: In The Shoes of Sholom Aleichem”. It had been a couple of years. At first I almost didn’t recognise him. He was always a big man with a barrel-chest. His frame had shrunk, and he was in a wheelchair. But then I heard his voice and I knew it was him – that unmistakable tone with its relish for life, still strong and vibrant.

As Tevye 2001
As Tevye 2001

After the screening there was a reception held in Theo’s honor. More than three hundred people were present. All the men wanted to embrace Theo, and all the women to kiss him. Aimee, whom he had married late in his still-vigorous ninth decade of life, enlisted me to help manage the crush. As I guided Theo’s chariot through the crowd, typically, he was telling me a joke that could have been part of a twenty-something’s stand up set.

We dined. Then he sang. We pushed him to the centre of the room in front of the band.

He sang two songs.

We listened, and I was aware that Trish was focussing on Theo, communicating with him silently, in a way that two people who have shared a stage can sometimes do. He was aware of that too, of course – amongst his general awareness of the audience. Such is part of the secret that all performers of quality share.

He sang as he always did with gusto, enthusiasm, and in the second song there was a detail that exactly expressed his brilliance as a performer. It was just a small twist of the head, a flicker of rapture in the smile, and the eyes half closed for a second, him uniting with the spirit of the music and sharing it.

It was an unannounced farewell.

Afterwards, outside, waiting with Aimee for a car to arrive, Trish and I stood by him on the sidewalk. We spoke little. After a delay there was a car at last. I helped him get in and I told him I loved him. After he died, as often happens, it was then that I knew how much.

He was widely loved. When he went, they dimmed the lights on Broadway.

Theo was steeped in the lore and the traditions of his culture, his race, and his faith. He was also man of immense humanity who knew that our only hope for peace on Earth is to also allow others to hold, in peace, other views, faiths, and cultures.

Not to say he wasn’t Jewish.

One time Theo was walking along in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he was accosted by some evangelical Christians who tried to convert him on the spot. He listened patiently. His response was genius:

“I come from a very old tribe. For five thousand years we’ve been doing business with the Father, and now — you want me to talk to the Son!?”

Acting It Shoulda Been You Living on Love Plays Renee Fleming Theatre theatre criticism Writing

An Alternative to the New York Times

Renee Fleming in Living on Love
Renee Fleming in Living on Love

For sheer missing the point, today’s review of Living on Love in The New York Times leads the field.

The point is: it’s Renée Fleming!

The other point is: it’s a farce …

While one cannot fault from a technical point of view some of what is said in the columns of The New York Times’s theatre pages, one could wish that the historical fact-checking was saved for a Master’s Thesis.

One could wish too, for more simple pleasure taken in the act of going to the theatre. More willingness to laugh. A little less requirement that plays offered to the chubby-fingered Infanta of critical taste conform quite so strictly to a Malvolio personal world-view.

I offer here a different take:

In another delicious sweetmeat that is this Broadway season’s theme of frivolous confectionary, Renée Fleming, the great opera diva, is letting her hair down to great effect.

Joe Di Pietro’s update on Garson Kanin’s unfinished play Peccadillo, renamed here Living on Love, plays on farcical tradition going back to Moliere.

Whatever gaps there may be in Ms. Fleming’s acting technique are more than compensated by her ability to time a laugh, and when she sings a fragment of classic opera a gossamer enchantment holds the audience suspended — how could it not? Ms. Fleming’s vocal achievement, experienced here playfully out of context, gives us a teasing insight into the limits of what is possible in the human voice.

Generously supported by a cast of stage veterans, Ms. Fleming’s unique visitation from the refined world of opera, and the fact that she is not a Broadway actress — nor indeed to make the play work should she be — means that the best joke of the evening is the one that transcends the script. Simply put: this is a great star of one genre having a holiday in another.

*       *       *

In Peter Brook’s influential book on theatre, The Empty Space, he tells a story about a show his company put up at their theatre in Paris that received damning reviews. The show was a true flop and they played to almost empty houses. The public stayed away in droves.

An empty theatre
An empty theatre

The company announced three free performances. Such was the lure of free tickets that the police were called in to manage the crowds The houses were packed.

At the end of the third show, the directress of the theatre came onto the stage and addressed the audience. “Is there anyone here,” she asked, “who could not afford the price of a ticket?”

One person put his hand up.

“And the rest of you, why did you have to wait to be let in for free?”

“It had a bad Press!”

A pause, while the directress held for silence. Then she asked another question.

“Do you believe what you read in the Press?”

*      *      *

When the RSC premiered its extraordinary version of Nicholas Nickleby, a show that played for years and toured the world, British critic Sir Bernard Levin panned it. Such was the public response that he returned to view the show a second time, and had the humilty to revise his initial assessment in print.

*      *      *

These days influence in public opinion-making is shifting from mainstream media to the blogosphere, to twitter and so forth. The positive in these changes is the lessening of influence of the mightier media organs. In my native London, influential theatre criticism is spread across half a dozen newspapers, but here in New York The Times still holds undisputed sway.

I reference another recent baffling – let me say that again – BAFFLING review in The Times of that delicious soufflé currently running on Broadway It Shoulda Been You. This show is an exquisitely layered riff on wedding forms. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a wedding will recognize how even the best intended of them can descend into mayhem.

Cast of It Shoulda Been You
Cast of It Shoulda Been You

Punning on mad mothers, frantic fathers, brides beset and a semi-prescient wedding planner holding it all together, punctuated by fabulous show stopping numbers, witty dancing, a show with a tiered wedding-cake construction, with piquant pace, it’s delicious to the last twist.

*      *      *

It is a truism held amongst actors that many, perhaps most, critics are practitioners manqué. The occupational hazard of being a critic is that one will come to despise that which one is paid to critique.

If you are in New York, do see these faintly-praised-in-the-Times shows if you can. And feel free to tell me which of us, Mr. Brantley with his readership of millions, or C. McPhillamy niche blogger, comes closer to pleasure in his assessment.

Sir Toby had it right: “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Acting Plays Theatre

Alan Howard: The Bandido

Years ago, when my two sons were somewhere in the middle of a long boyhood, inspired by their demands for bedtime stories, I came up with a character called The Bandido.

The Bandido in his blue period
The Bandido in his blue period

He was derived from Alan Howard.

The Bandido was a charming, elusive baddie. To begin with he had equal baddie status with Dr. Dreadful, and Elfis (a fusion of Elvis Presley and an elf). Sometimes these three bad guys would work together creating havoc around the place, and sometimes they worked alone. The Sherrif always fixed it by the time sleep came. The Sherrif was assisted by two plucky boys, who were the lead characters in the stories, called Tom and Nate. Tom and Nate lived in a cottage that was kitted out with magical weaponry. They were pretty outstandingly good at saving the day these two boys, Tom and Nate, and their real-life counterparts, unknown to themselves, gave joy to all the grown ups who loved them.

The story was an open-ended serial, and over the years progressed to adventures in space with a galactic baddie called The Blob; to a heist with a Chinaman on a Junk who sold fish ‘n chips in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; to the The Sultan of Ombo-Gombo who was the richest man in the universe. Supporting parts were played by bit-part actors in roles like: Plooki, Power Pig, Awesome Ostrich, and Copper who was a flying horse.

As with most soaps, the plots were fairly standard. Baddies doing some bad stuff—global hazard—Sherrif-outfoxed calls on plucky lads—lads deploy cunning strategies—exhibit courage, strength and speed—world saved from catastrophe.

The Bandido first made his appearance as a solo, but then teamed up with Dr. Dreadful and Elfis whom he met while in gaol. For a while they were a dastardly trio, but over time The Bandido emerged as lead villain.

If you’ve ever told a bedtime story to children made from whole cloth (aka making it up as you go), you’ll know that even if you you’ve sketched out the outline there will come moments when you have absolutely no idea of what happens next. It was in one of these moments that The Bandido made his debut.

Working on the idea that when you don’t know what you’re doing, about the only thing to do is to act as if you do, I took a deep breath and heard myself say:

‘Oh no! You don’t catch The Bandido as easily as all thaaaaaat!’

It was a voice I knew well.

I was in a play with Alan Howard at the time. I played an eccentric Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and I had one scene with Alan, who was playing a maniacal Russian General. This was a play called Flight, adapted from the Bulgakov novel, at The National Theatre in London. Part of my job was also to understudy Alan Howard.

Alan Howard
Alan Howard

Understudying, also known by the more tasteful term of ‘Standing by for …’ or the more elavated one of ‘Cover’ as in ‘I’m covering … so and so’ has it’s challenges but if you can navigate the esoteric ins and outs of it, it can be incredibly useful to the jobbing actor. One feature of the gig, especially at a place like the National, is that as a young actor, you get paid to watch distinctive older actors and learn from them. Alan Howard was distinctive in spades.

You may not know of him, because aside from a few choice film and TV roles, most of his career was on stage. Over decades at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played many Shakespearean leads, including all the kings (Richard 11 to Richard 111, plus all the Henrys) sometimes two, three, or four simultaneously. You don’t do that year after year without it leaving an indelible imprint on your voice.

He was an actor of charisma and authority. In rehearsal endlessly inventive and in the moment. In performance known for his trademark stances — first of which was, as I’ve said, his voice. When you’ve done Shakespeare in quanitity in big theatres, there’s iron in the voice. A modest man offstage, on stage his vocal flashes were a rollercoaster illumined with random mad swarms of giant fireflies.

Flight was playing in the largest of the National’s three auditoria, the Olivier Theatre, an arena thrust stage modelled after the great Greek amphitheatres. At Delphi and Epidavros theatres were faced with marble, a material which conducts sound and, even outdoors, creates the finest acoustic environment for the human voice in the world.

The Olivier’s steps were cast in concrete, a material which absorbs sound, thus creating a very different kind of acoustic, one which has been frequently worked on with architectural add-ons, and even, to the outrage of classically trained actors, the ocassional use of microphones.

The great 19th century actor McCready wrote of Drury Lane that it was a theatre more suited to semaphore than to subtlety. Alan’s technique was more or less unmatched in living theatre, as a younger man he had given us a specially virile Coriolanus, and his Theseus/Oberon was part of history making, both those performances in the more intimate Aldwych Theatre. But even his unique vocal ability found reaching the back and side walls of the Olivier a challenge.

Alan Howard as Coriolanus
Alan Howard as Coriolanus

So he used a favoured technique and delivered one long battle speech standing on a table. He cut a compelling profile, and I as his understudy did the same when we rehearsed. In one rehearsal I said to the assistant director, who was presiding, ‘Surely I get off this table now?’ (I’d been up there quite a while).

‘No,’ he said, ‘You stay there for a bit.’

So I said, doing my best Alan Howard impersonation, ”It’s the only way to play the Olivier! Standing on a taaaaable, in a cerise follooooooow!!!’.

Unknown to me, the show relay was switched on, so my words were broadcast through the whole backstage.

That night waiting in the darkness of the wings to go on and play my scene with Alan, I felt a familiar presence in an unfamiliar place — usually we entered from opposite sides of the stage. ‘Heard you havin’ a go at me this afternoon,’ whispered the voice that could only belong to one man.

I spun around in the darkness, ‘Oh, Alan! Sincerest form of flattery is imitation!’

‘And yes!’ said Alan, spinning me back, his voice rising in volume as the scene change music came up, ‘it is a long time to stand on a taaaaaable!!!’ With a hearty shove he pushed me onstage, and we played the scene.

Gentleman that he was, he bore no grudge, allowed me to buy him a respectful glass of red wine after the show, and even generously negotiated with the director to give my character, the Archbishop, a few more lines in our scene.

I was grateful for the chance to work with him. He will be remembered throughout the profession as a most accomplished classicist and for other theatrical strengths, but I will always be most grateful for the Bandido, who was a favourite with my kids.

The Bandido with a rare smile
The Bandido with a rare smile

Technically Bandido should be rendered as Bandito, but somehow he never was. The Bandido was a thin, very thin shape-shifter which meant that no gaol could hold him because he could always ooze between the bars. He dressed entirely in black or dark blue and wore a large kind of sombrero. But his most distinctive feature was his voice.

The Great Stage Manager in the sky has called Beginners (UK), Places (USA) for Alan. Wherever he is now he’ll still have a voice to thunder and command.