This month’s summary is going to be dominated by two trips to London to see two plays, both productions that had been postponed by the pandemic. One was good the other not just ‘Good’ but excellent!
The Doctor, written & directed by Robert Icke, starring Juliet Stevenson
The setting, wooden walls, a long table with benches – a doctor’s mess cum committee room – an open plan dining room – a panel discussion in a TV studio. The table and benches worked hard in this production to be everything, letting the words and actions do all the talking without distraction. Except for the very visible drum kit and keyboard on a platform above the stage at which Hannah Ledwidge provides a rhythmic heartbeat and percussive musical accompaniment through the whole production.
Juliet Stevenson is Ruth Wolff, a Professor at an Institute attached to a teaching hospital which is planning to open a new wing for studying Alzheimers, funded by the Government. She is fierce but respected, totally dedicated – a doctor first, above everything else, which makes her blinkered and naive and this is to be her downfall.
When a 14-year-old child dies of sepsis after a self-administered abortion goes wrong and it transpires that the parents who couldn’t be there had sent a Catholic priest to administer the last rites and Ruth hadn’t allowed him in, she is thrown to the wolves. The first half of the play becomes a trial by her colleagues as the funding starts to look precarious, the second a trial by media who want a scapegoat.
Icke’s play, adapted and extended from Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi, takes this look at medical ethics, cancel culture and all kinds of bias, by being largely free of gender and race. Some of Wolff’s colleagues are male doctors played by women, white by black and vice versa; they are only known by their surnames. The rivalries between all the doctors was also plain to see. Also, the priest is black, but played by a white man. She is the only character to be identified as female by her forename, and at home, we don’t know whether Wolff’s lover Charlie, played by a woman is male or female.
There were some brilliant scenes, especially those at home where a troubled teenager pops in from next door to talk and do her homework. Although, Ruth tells Sami, ‘I’m a doctor, you can tell me anything,’ to get the teen to talk, you know that will come back to bite.
Stevenson is superb, icy, pedantic, not suffering fools at work, but at home she dissolves into a much softer person, and as the play progresses, we come to see why she puts on her armour at work. It’s powerful stuff, (with potentially upsetting triggers).
However, for me the first half, a lot of which was arguing hospital politics, went on far too long – well over 1.5 hrs. The second was tauter and better for it. Another career high for Stevenson and the ensemble were superb too. It’s on at the Duke of York’s Theatre until December 11.
Good, by CP Taylor, starring David Tennant, Elliot Levey and Sharon Small
Taylor is unknown to me, born to Russian Jewish parents, he grew up in Glasgow. He wrote over 80 plays, but died at just 52 in 1981. Good, which was premiered by the RSC in 1981 was one of his last works, and apparently, one of the best known. Although he had some London runs during his career, he concentrated on work for community theatre companies outside London, including the Traverse in Edinburgh and Newcastle’s Live Theatre.
Dominic Cooke’s revival of Good again has an innovative small, single set and converts the play into a three-hander by having Elliot Levey and Sharon Small play several parts each. A fourth actor and the ensemble behind the scenes only appear in the closing moments.
Set in the 1930s in Frankfurt, Tennant is Halder, a literature professor, married to Helen (Small) with three kids. He is long-suffering: his wife, a pianist, is a rubbish housekeeper and he does most of the parenting; his now-blind mother (Small) is in an institution with dementia. His best friend is Maurice (Levey), a Jewish doctor, and the two love nothing more than putting the world to rights, but Maurice is getting increasingly worried about the rise of the National Socialists and their anti-Jewish stance. Halder is convinced it’s just a phase and tries to persuade Maurice.
Things begin to escalate when Halder joins the party as a good career move, believing that if he’s asked to do anything he doesn’t want to, he’ll leave. He also falls for one of his students, Anna (Small). Then, when the party discovers he had written a novel fantasising about euthanasia some time ago, they have plans for him and knowing his mother’s state he goes along with what they ask… (Levey as a party offical making it seem perfectly on the level). Halder is well on the slippery slope. As for his relationship with Maurice, well, it’s changed.
The three actors remained on stage the whole time, changes in their stance and lighting designating which character Levey and Small were inhabiting. Tennant may only be playing Halder, but we see his internal monologues spoken to the audience with a turn of the head and we hear the music running through his brain too from Schubert to Wagner to Marlene Dietrich. His desire for an easy life gives him a lack of conscience and this degree of moral turpitude makes him believe that he is good and that what he is doing is for good, even as he rises within the Nazi party. It’s not so much a good man turning bad as a man who doesn’t care enough riding on the coattails of those who tell him he’s good and falling for it. How politically relevant is that?!
While the plot’s direction is rather obvious these days, the journey is chilling, made more so by the moments of humour. Tennant is truly excellent, as is Levey, especially as Maurice where his rising panic is very palpable. Small has the harder job to do, making the three women, who are perhaps underwritten, distinct. She also gets to play Freddie, a Nazi major with a secret stash of ‘negroid jungle-music’ records, telling Halder after handing him a book-burning order, I have my records, you can keep your books. The play is also to the point at two hours including the interval, and the better for it.
On at the Harold Pinter Theatre until Dec 24th. Expensive but GO SEE IT IF YOU CAN!
I Also Saw:
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris – (Cinema) Based on the Paul Gallico novel (which has been in my TBR for years), Lesley Manville is delightful as always in this feel-good movie about a 1950s cleaning lady who falls in love with a Dior dress and saves up to go to Paris to buy one for herself. It’s stereotyped but Paddington-y in its loveliness. Cheered me up no end.
Jack Absolute Flies Again – (NT Live Screening – still on at the theatre). The latest play from Richard Bean (One man, two guvnors), an updating of Sheridan’s The Rivals to a WWII Battle of Britain setting, Caroline Quentin completely steals the show as the widow Mrs Malaprop who has an RAF squadron posted at her country pile. Her dialogue was simply FILTHY! – e.g. ‘training her
clitoris Clematis’ and that’s one of the cleaner quotes! Belly laughs all the way, but a poignant ending.
Inside Man (BBC) – Vicar, David Tennant as – a good man gone bad – when he gets unwittingly given child porn and Stanley Tucci as a murderer on Death Row seeking redemption by solving mysteries. The two plotlines shouldn’t have worked together and mostly they didn’t, until they did. Two star turns though.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Prime, 2022) – Teen horrror based on Grady Hendrix’s fun novel set in a 1980s high school (reviewed here). Obvs Amazon is playing on the Stranger Things coattails here with this tale of demonic posession. Not as funny as the novel, but OK.
Bad Sisters (Apple TV) – If you can get Apple TV watch this, it’s deliciously good, and Claes Bang is just amazing as the reviled John Paul.
The Elon Musk Show (BBC2) – Watching this three part documentary, my jaw was on the ground almost the whole time. Whatever you think of him, you must admit he is totally fascinating, totally driven, totally bonkers and more, but his mother, Maye, is truly terrifying!
Doctor Who (BBC1) I’ve not been really watching Jodie Whittaker’s turn as the Doctor, but I did tune in for her last episode, in which she regenerated into David Tennant (him again!) Looking forward to his specials, and the return of Donna, before he turns into the new longterm doctor.
BBC 100: Two great programmes amongst the many were Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s The Love Box in Your Living Room – an hilarious alternative history of the BBC, and Connie Huq’s Kids TV: The Surprising Story.