The Veil, NT Lyttelton, London
Cool Hand Luke, Aldwych, London
Driving Miss Daisy, Wyndham's, London
A 19th-century Irish estate troubled by unquiet spirits makes for a spooky evening, brought down to earth by a whiff of BBC pilot
Sunday 09 October 2011
This is a grand haunted house, sure enough.
A gale rattles the windows, the candelabra gutter and a door swings open, as if pushed by an invisible hand. If it's a spooky night you're wanting, the Irish writer Conor McPherson is your man. Admirers know this from his grippingly eerie The Weir (1999), Shining City (2004) and The Seafarer (2006) – not to mention his 2009 film, The Eclipse.
Now, in The Veil, McPherson's focus is an Anglo-Irish landed estate in 1822. Fenella Woolgar's Lady Lambroke is a widow with a brisk manner. However, the household's mental state is increasingly fragile as it struggles to cope with debts, a bad harvest, and starving, potentially mutinous locals. Lady L's daughter, Emily Taaffe's Hannah – since her father's suicide – has heard ghoulish howls in the drawing room.
Two visitors want Hannah to participate in a seance. The Reverend Berkeley (Jim Norton) is a maverick ex-clergyman, dabbling in the occult. He and a laudanum-addicted friend – Audelle (Adrian Schiller) – have travelled from England, ostensibly to hasten Hannah's marriage to a Northamptonshire aristocrat. However, their real purpose is to sniff out unquiet spirits, opening a can of worms. Meanwhile, the boozy, shotgun-carrying estate manager, Peter McDonald's Fingal, who dotes on his employer, is wounded by Lady L's dismissiveness.
Thus are you nudged toward your seat edge with familiar devices – several from McPherson's backlist. The production looks beautiful with its empire-line dresses and flickering log fire (designs by Rae Smith, lit by Neil Austin), but the spine-chiller tactics are disappointing.
Stylistically, too, The Veil creaks, with its big speeches delivered from centre-stage (McPherson himself directing). But with its echoes of Chekhov and Brian Friel's Home Place, the play's haunted country estate becomes a rich metaphor for Ireland's history, for English imperialism, shifts in power and brewing revolution. Yes, The Weir was more original, but The Veil is a fine play all the same, tapping into deep veins of primitive superstition, while intimating that the "ghosts" dogging us are our own guilt and fear.
As for rehashing storylines, the West End keeps rifling through the movie catalogue. Does Paul Newman in the 1960s film make Cool Hand Luke a top night out? No, siree! What's jaw-dropping about this southern US jail drama – pitting rebel inmate Luke against a brutal regime – is the tediousness of Andrew Loudon's staging, with Marc Warren in the title role.
Emma Reeves's adaptation, in fact, sources Donn Pearce's pre-screenplay novel, so we're spared the film's tacky scene with a car-lathering blonde. But what we are given is darned clunky, as the action switches endlessly between dull scrubland where the chain gang mime hard labour; the prison barracks; and scrappy flashbacks to the Second World War, with Luke's army unit on a raping and pillaging spree in Germany (the violence is not at all convincing).
Warren is passable, doing deadpan impudence. He suffers by comparison with Newman, though. Luke's atheistic rant in a storm – "Where's that thunderbolt ... huh, big guy?" – well, it ain't King Lear. And the scene where Luke eats stacks of boiled eggs for a bet dwindles into puerile farts.
To hail this as topical would be pushing it, though Pearce's tale touches on the lasting impact of military service and suggests that some delinquents are rendered more recalcitrant, not less, by boot-camp discipline.
Another film staged, Driving Miss Daisy, offers bigger names. Vanessa Redgrave is the neurotically crabby Jewish widow Daisy, with James Earl Jones as Hoke, her patient black chauffeur in the American Deep South, circa 1950. Alas, David Esbjornson's drab production looks like a village-hall show, involving a steering wheel on a stick and out-of-focus projections. Is that foliage or is Hoke motoring through a huge petri dish of slime?
That Esbjornson and his designer have major Broadway credits beggars belief. Redgrave is dismayingly hammy too. Still, even when snail-paced and almost drowned out by the whirring projector, Alfred Uhry's dialogue is droll. Jones's gently dopey driver has a sweet grin. And, ultimately, his and Daisy's journey towards aged frailty and friendship – through the years of the Civil Rights Movement – is overwhelmingly touching.
'The Veil' (020-7452 3000) to 11 Dec; 'Cool Hand Luke' (0844 847 2429) to 7 Jan; 'Driving Miss Daisy' (0844 482 5125) to 17 Dec
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