The Donmar is probably the best of the smaller London theatres (only the Almeida comes close). Unlike most West End theatres it stages its own productions rather than housing other people?s, and so is far more like the National Theatre than any of the identikit theatres along Shaftesbury Avenue. It has a pretty formidable reputation, and often attracts big stars (well, big stars in theatre terms, anyway). Everything I?ve ever seen there has been good. It?s currently showing Pinter?s Old Times, which I?ve just seen, and which I?m about to heartily recommend to everyone. The theatre?s on Earlham Street (nearest tube would be Covent Garden, although Leicester Square?s also convenient - the theatre?s just past Seven Dials). It?s a very small theatre, perhaps about the same size as the Young Vic. This allows for an intimacy in the performances that isn?t possible in larger theatres. The stage kind of juts out a bit into the audience (sorry, can?t for the life of me remember the technical term for that), and pretty much all the seats guarantee a good view. The one downside to the size is that it can be fiendishly difficult to actually get tickets - booking as early as possible seems to be the way to go, and even that doesn?t always work. I?m still disappointed after several years that I didn?t manage to see Nicole Kidman when she acted there. (Admittedly this has more to do with the abundant nudity in the play, rather than from any high-minded artistic reasons). Harold Pinter is probably my favourite playwright bar Shakespeare. He rose to prominence in the late 50s with The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter, and he wrote some great plays in his idiosyncratic style until the mid-Seventies. After that his work, while still very intelligent, isn?t quit e as fun - it loses a lot of the stylistic, absurdist quirks that make his earlier work so enjoyable (and easy to parody). Old Times was written in 1970, and while it lacks some of the classic Pinter ingredients - no cockney wideboys or sinister descriptions of bus routes - it?s still superb. Pinter is certainly one of the greatest British writers of the last half-century, probably only surpassed by Angela Carter. He might have slipped into self-parody slightly in recent years - he wrote a mind-bogglingly awful poem about the first Gulf War - but he still has the old intensity, and I?m very glad he?s still around. Old Times is about a married couple, Deeley and Kate, both about 40, living somewhere on the coast. Kate?s old friend, Anna, with whom she shared a flat in London 20 years earlier, is coming to visit. When she arrives the usual Pinteresque power battles commence, with Deeley and Anna effectively fighting for ownership of Kate. Lots of pregnant pauses and innocuous phrases imbued with sinister meaning ensue. Deeley starts out pompous and patronising, but soon starts to crumble as his confidence is undermined. Anna usually has the upper hand, having a rapport with her old friend that Deeley can?t seem to match, but ultimately the cracks in her facade start to show too. Kate herself sits in the midst of it all, almost ignored as the other two talk about her, very still and enigmatic, although she finally pitches in with a superbly devastating speech at the end. Ultimately it?s about jealousy - Anna knew Kate in a way Deeley never could, and vice versa, and they?re both more obsessed with their relationship with Kate than they are with Kate herself. It?s also about the reliability of memory, as all three characters reminisce about 20-year old events, often contradicting each other and getting things wrong . There's a fantastic moment when Deeley describes in great detail something that happened 20 years ago, only to be told by Anna that it didn?t happen. Later, of course, she reveals that it did indeed happen, but turns his description on its head by putting her own twist on it (a device that Pinter uses again in the sublime No Man?s Land). It?s that kind of play, the characters toy with each other and the playwright toys with his audience. It?s not quite as mannered as Pinter?s other plays of the era, and lacks the concentrated cruelty of something like The Caretaker, but it?s certainly up there with the best. There?s a nicely erotic undercurrent running through it all. (I know what you?re thinking - one man, two women - wahey! Er, no, sorry, not quite like that?). And although it?s fairly intense, especially towards the end, it?s also very funny. (Which is why I like Pinter so much - he?s astoundingly funny in his own weird way.) It?s very difficult to explain the comedy. Deeley?s rather disdainful description of the kind of people Anna used to go to the pub with - ?Poets, stuntmen, jockeys, stand-up comics. That whole scene? - had me falling off my chair with laughter, but probably doesn?t come across properly when written down. There?s also some hilarious dialogue about the actor Robert Newton. (Perhaps it?s just me, or me and my friends. We laughed long and hard at lots of things while most of the audience sat in stony silence. I think they were the kinds of people who go to the theatre to improve their minds, though. ?Oh, we?re going to the theatre tonight because we?re intellectuals. We couldn?t possibly cheapen the experience by actually enjoying ourselves.? This, I imagine, is precisely what puts most people off theatre, which is a terrible shame, because it?s my all-time favourite entertainment medium.) The three cast members are superb. Jeremy Northam, tipped as a future James Bond, is very funny as Deeley, and some of his vocal inflections reminded me of Patrick Magee from A Clockwork Orange. Helen McCory, the only one I hadn?t seen in anything before, is Anna, expertly playing the slightly smug and aggressive side without actually repelling the audience. Geena McKee, from Our Friends in the North and Brass Eye, is also very good as Kate; she probably has the most difficult part seeing as how she hardly says anything. Because of the smallness of the theatre they all make use of quite subtle body language and facial expression to great effect. Northam is perhaps the best, but possibly only because his acting here is totally unlike anything I?ve seen him do before. The staging is nicely done. The set is very early Seventies with its horrid modernistic furniture and mirrored floor. The weirdest innovation is that the entire play takes place behind a transparent gauze that totally surrounds the stage. It never affects the audience?s view of what?s going on, but adds a slight faintness and blur to things. I?d normally find that kind of thing rather trying - the sort of thing a director might do to show off how clever they are at the expense of the audience?s enjoyment - but this works rather well. There?s also good incidental music (by David Arnold, who did the last few Bond films) - sinister but also somehow evocative of cheap Seventies TV on occasion. The play is on until 4th September, so there?s plenty of time to see it (assuming it hasn?t sold out - there were a few empty seats, so it presumably hasn?t). Tickets range from £15 for the Circle to £29 for the best stalls seats (you can get cheaper seats by not going at the weekend). (This is pretty good by W ;est End standards, especially in such a small theatre.) The seats themselves aren?t hugely comfortable, but then theatre seats never are. The play only lasts 90 minutes anyway (no interval), so that shouldn?t be a problem. There is a bar (although as with all theatres it?s too small and a bit over-priced). Programmes cost £2.50, if you want to know which cast members have appeared in The Bill. The only slight problem is that the air conditioning in the theatre was very audible, which is especially unfortunate given Pinter?s fondness for long pauses. So there you have it. I heartily recommend this play. I heartily recommend the Donmar - I?ve not seen a bad production there yet, and suspect I probably won?t.
I visited the Donmar Warehouse, to see a production of Dusty Hughes 'Helpless'. I must admit, I do not go to the thetre a great deal. Living quite far off from London, I only really go when there is a particularly well recommended production or if there is a cast member I am fond of. To be honest, in the last couple of years I have only been to Wyndham's theatre and to the Donmar. In my own personal opinion, the Donmar is far better :) The theatre has a very personal atmosphere. It is small and therefore holds fewer people adding to the personal atmosphere. There are a selection of seats on the lower level which are very close to the stage and also an upper level (which we were seated). From our seats, we had a fantastic and close view and were able to see and hear very well. The seats although maybe not as comfortable as at the Wyndham, were perfectly adequate for the production. Our tickets were very reasonably priced at £10 each, which was a great relief compared to theatre prices we usually end up paying. The production starred Art Malik and Craig Kelly and was very enjoyable. There is also a very nice entrance to which the stars leave for autographs. The programme was cheap and informative and the theatre and staff had a very friendly atmosphere. I will definately be vising this theatre again the near future.
Housed in an impressive red-brick industrial building - at various times a brewery, a banana warehouse and a film studio - this tiny repertory theatre is one of the great success stories of the 1990s. Created as a studio space for the RSC in 1977, it became a shabby but popular fringe theatre in the 1980s, a testing ground for producers with big ideas but little money. When the Victorian warehouse became chic in the early 1990s, the Donmar was given a designer makeover, to create a spare, comfortable venue, with the audience almost on top of the stage. The re-design was overseen by the Donmars new artistic director Sam Mendes, then only 24. Under his lead, there then followed an astonishing run of commercial and critical hits: daring, imaginative works that struck a chord with audiences and placed the Donmar at the cutting edge of British Theatre. After a decade of success, with hardly a duff production, Mendes left for Hollywood, where he won five Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for American Beauty (1999). His theatre has remained the epicenter of artistic glamour in London (New York Times).