The Week on Stage, from Oklahoma! to The Misfortune of the English

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This week’s theater round-up features the London transfer of Oklahoma! and David Eldridge’s new relationship play Middle at the National.

Check back next week for another cohort of productions, including Sarah Frankcom’s The Breach and two Palestinians go dogging at the Royal Court.

Middle – National Theater ★★★☆☆

If 2017’s Beginningthe first play in David Eldridge’s relationships triptych, was about the sparky sexual attraction when two singles first meet, its follow-up Middle is more about the stiff ennui of marital life. This time it’s stress preventing Maggie (Claire Rushbrook) from sleeping. Instead, she tells her husband Gary (Daniel Ryan) she does not love him any more, and that she has not wanted to have sex with him for a long time. Ouch.

As a couple who have never expressed their boredom and loneliness, Rushbrook and Ryan give wonderfully nuanced performances. There may be a constant lump in Rushbrook’s throat, yet Ryan’s performance posits Gary as the more vulnerable of the pair. “Don’t I have feelings? Or am I just a geezer?” he pleads without his voice wavering.

Daniel Ryan and Claire Rushbrook in ‘Middle’

(Johan Person)

as in Beginning, the action (or, more accurately, the lack of action) on stage plays out in real time. We’re watching two people talking, yet director Polly Findlay keeps things from feeling static as the couple anxiously paces and swirls around the room. The play swings between extremely funny (usually Gary), and desperately sad (usually Maggie). But the script can feel like a who’s who of marital issues, as mentions of sort-of affairs, fertility, family dynamics and careers are rattled off with a lack of subtlety.

As dawn begins to peek through the kitchen blinds, both everything and nothing have changed. Still, you’re probably not expecting grand conclusions from Eldridge’s play. For Maggie, this bit is “the beginning of the end”, but for Gary, the middle is just the middle, the bit you get through because you have to. Elizabeth Lewis

Read the full review here.

The Misfortune of the English – Orange Tree Theater ★★★☆☆

Only in the final moments of The Misfortune of the English, Pamela Carter’s new play, did I realize the story playing out before me was true. So much history happened in the pre-war years that we rarely hear about the 1936 “Black Forest tragedy”. But the story, in which five British prep schoolboys died in a blizzard in the German mountains, is as intriguing as it is sad, and certainly worth telling.

On stage, three class members explain the story to us: aspiring head boy Harrison (Hubert Burton), jokester Eaton (Vinnie Heaven) and the quieter Lyons (Matthew Tennyson). They bandy around patriotic expressions they don’t really understand with school songs and Latin idioms, always laughing. As things get darker, references to the Hitler Youth and “witness statements” are ominously peppered in and we learn that not all three teenagers make it.

Matthew Tennyson, Vinnie Heaven and Hubert Burton in ‘The Misfortune of the English’

(Ellie Kurtz)

There are strong performances throughout the trio, but it’s Tennyson your eyes keep being drawn to. Shivering in his shorts (the other boys wear trousers), Lyons is anxiously torn between being sensitive and impressing his peers. When it’s revealed that he is Jewish, everything clicks into place. Instinctively, I want to compare Tennyson to Samuel Barnett as Posner in The History Boys – both in his runt-of-the-litter mannerisms and the actor’s scene-stealing ability.

In fact, there’s more than a hint of Bennett’s play throughout The Misfortune of the English – although its attempts to discuss big ideas about the nature of history are far less sharp. While it’s suggested the boys are talking to us from the future, this point is never fully realized, meaning their emotional final rendition of the Nineties hit “I’ll Stand By You” just feels out of place. I assume its aim is to show history repeating itself, but the “misfortune” in the title is the deaths of those five boys. Carter’s script simply can’t do justice to both. IL

Oklahoma! – Young Vic ★★★☆☆

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: this version of Oklahoma! doesn’t want you to leave with a goofy smile on your face. Daniel Fish’s reimagining of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic quickly forgoes the knee-slapping, square-dancing bonhomie associated with the early 1900s-set musical. Instead, it dives headfirst into the suffocating bleakness of small-town community life and the male-female relationships that govern them. Fun!

Things start nicely enough: Curly (Arthur Darvill) strides onto the stage, guitar in hand, and begins with the comforting and familiar tune of “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”. Curly flirts with aloof farm girl Laurey (Anoushka Lucas), she rebuffs him, and he pledges that he’ll win her love from her, sooner or later. It’s light and charming, but the musical really kicks into high gear with Marisha Wallace’s rendition of “I Cain’t Say No”, securing the most raucous cheers from the opening-night audience.

The cast of ‘Oklahoma!’

(Young Vic)

For all the joy brought by Ado Annie’s interactions with her suitors, the atmosphere can turn cold in an instant, unsettling the nerves and making you wish for a speedy return to the levity. The number “Pore Jud is Daid” plunges the audience into total darkness. As much as innovations like these breathe new life into an almost 80-year-old play, several choices throughout its run feel so disjointed that it’s hard to see their reason for being.

With a wedding and a death at its climax, the musical forces its audience to reckon with just how unwaveringly American society holds on to hetero-patriarchal ideals, even above what’s fair and just. It’s clever, powerful and timely – an undeniably fresh take that feels as if it should be appreciated, rather than enjoyed. Maybe being uncomfortable is the point – if so, this production is a success. nicole vassell

Read the full review here.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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