Two words: Stockard. Channing.
The easy stroll through Islington to the Almeida Theatre was certainly enhanced by the many, many delicious-smelling restaurants we didn’t have enough time to eat in. We had higher things on our minds (and a quick dash to Sainsbury’s meant sandwiches in our bags) and so we were on a mission direct from tube station to front row Circle.
This was a first for me, I rarely venture into Islington unless I’m killing time between lectures, and so it was that I set eyes on the Almeida for the first time. It’s delightfully small, like a toy theatre almost; intimate enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if the people down in the stalls were flying-spittle victims.
Now, y’all might have heard that I loved, worshipped and adored the West Wing, and my affections were fairly torn between CJ Cregg and Ms Channing’s fabulous Abbey Bartlet. This was the moment I finally got around to seeing some West Wing alumni right here in London (having completely missed Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff), and who better to start with? Can you imagine my heart-stopping terror when K opening the programme resulted in a single sheet of white paper floating towards the ground? For the uninitiated, a paper insert usually means a major cast member will not be performing. Thank whatever-is-responsible that it was a false alarm, the simple page containing merely a running order.
Minutes later she was right there in front of me, stage makeup creases and all, and nothing short of breathtaking. She can act though, not that it was ever in any doubt. Despite nine billion stage incarnations of Grease, she’s been the only one to give a heart to Rizzo’s default of tart. Every overlooked indie film she’s turned her hand to has been compelling, and like any long-standing actress there are some turkeys that were clearly bill-paying roles.
For what our friend R calls a “me2Jew”, you can imagine how enthralled I was by this snapshot of Jewish family life in the Depression. Clifford Odets has written a mostly excellent play, though the son’s character has a tendency to speak in speechifying passages that betray the author’s own motivations. The plot development was telegraphed pretty early on, but there’s nothing like poignant inevitability to tug at the old heartstrings. It’s all tastefully bleak, from the tights and vests strung across the auditorium like tragic decorations to the worn and tattered set furniture.
John Rogan was outstanding as Jacob, even if he was a mouthy Communist of the most unrealistic stripe (the Communism, not the acting). The remaining cast were outstanding, though Ben Turner as son Ralph had a bit more convincing to do. I know he was portraying the worst kind of dreamer, but it still felt a teensy bit stage school.
Worth the money though, especially at such reasonable seat prices (£26) and even the programmes priced back at a more respectable £2.50. We were too lazy to move from our little bench seat to check out the bar, but it seemed very poncey-Islington-wine-bar, which is just right for such a funky little theatre.
Most of all, I love it when someone you’ve invested hours and too many pounds in following the career of doesn’t let you down. I was sure Stockard would live up to the hype, but she really hit this one out of the park. She can come and smash things in my house any time.
Awake and Sing! at the Almeida Theatre, N1
Booking until Sat 20 Oct 2007 (limited season)