Review – The Misanthrope with Keira Knightley, Comedy Theatre

Thursday 10 December 2009

“Why are we doing this?” grumped Andrew, plaintively.

“Who is she?” he continued, wailing.

Phil explained patiently: “She was in those pirate films, Bend it Like Beckham and that fim you saw with James McAvoy in a vest.”

Well, James McAvoy always gets to wear a vest in every film so that didn’t narrow it down and Andrew wasn’t convinced that this “Keira Knightley” was someone he needed to see.

But it seems the rest of the world does. People are flocking to the Comedy Theatre in droves. Let’s face it, they weren’t there because of their need to see The Misanthrope or their love of Molière.

There are queues outside the theatre just to get in. Then there are bag checks with added security questions :”Have you got a camera?” (which seems a rather redundant question these days since everyone has a camera on their phone). And since they can’t get the audience in on time and the curtain is late up you would think they might use the waiting time to remind the audience to turn them off. Ah well.

Martin Crimp‘s present day version of what is apparently Molière’s greatest comedy updates the play to contemporary London. Damian Lewis‘s Alceste is a disillusioned playwright at odds with the vanity and vacuity of the world around him. But contrary to everything he rails against he falls madly in love with an American movie star Jennifer (Keira Knightley) who initially appears to give shallowness new depths. Spot the irony? Yes, well fortunately this version does too.

The whole hoopla surrounding Knightley’s nightly appearance on the London stage is knowingly sent up. This is irony writ large. Crimp’s semi-verse version hammers it home. “I don’t just hate people in the public eye, I hate those who watch it too.” whinges Alceste echoing Andrew. “Your face is just one more image in the public eye.” he moans at Jennifer. And getting one of the few really big laughs of the evening: “People speak highly of a pile of shit if they get dressed up and paid £50 to see it”. There’s even a theatre critic Covington (Tim McMullan – very amusing), who is a budding playwright but couldn’t possibly be based on anyone we know, could he?

But, you ask, what of KK? Well she is, of course very beautiful, worryingly stick-thin but surprisingly not wooden. If you’ve come here expecting to see the Whingers littering the place with phrases like “displaying more wood than Tiger” you’ll leave disappointed. This is her stage debut (and a very early preview) and she copes with the spotlight with surprising confidence and a pretty convincing American accent.

However, after a reasonably promising start, before she appears and as you get your ear round the sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating verse, the laughs do stop once she comes on. Perhaps the audience are too busy staring at her, thinking “this girl needs to eat” but things do take a dip.

No doubt certain critics will hark back to Nicole Kidman’s West End Stage debut and be reaching for the smelling salts and honing their epithets. But not us. To be fair the Whingers were both suffering from heavy colds and struggling. Andrew dropped off in the first act and dropped out before the second declaring rather miserably, “I’ve got the gist”.

Did he miss much? Well he missed Knightley dancing on a sofa in paniers as there’s a 17th century fancy dress party in the second act which gives the cast the opportunity to get into proper Molièresque frockery. There are some pretty impressive wigs and they aren’t even by Richard Mawbey who’s been treading water on Red.

But a scene in this particular preview (Tuesday) had another peculiar layer of irony. Copies of the night’s Evening Standard are brought on stage (a very cheap prop these days) and characters read one of the articles. The cast, however, were very careful not to open the paper at page three which was almost entirely devoted to audience reaction to Knightley’s stage debut: “A Knightley to remember…Keira dazzles in West End stage debut“. Phil couldn’t concentrate on the scene. As various copies were strewn around the set surely one of them would fall open at the page? Or had it been artfully excised? What will they do the night after the play opens to the press and Knightley’s face is no doubt plastered on the front page? Resort to The Metro?

Thea Sharrock has assembled an excellent cast as if to cover up the cracks should the star not be up to it. Lewis holds things together rather nicely and has a good light comedy touch, Tara FitzGerald‘s acting teacher Ellen is amusing and Dominic Rowan, Kelly Price and Nicholas Le Prevost give fine support. So why was the whole thing ultimately underwhelming? The applause at the end was fairly muted despite one man (American one assumes) ovating in the centre of the front row.

Of course this is a real money-spinner. Programmes are an outrageous £4 (and not even embossed). There’s lots of money to be made at the bars, which is presumably why there’s an interval. Without it the show would be much better. Phil worked out that if they cut the break it would have been as short as Mike Bartlett’s Cock. (Andrew, can we really make another gag on Mike Bartlett’s Cock? – Phil) (Phil, yes Mike Bartlett’s Cock will run and run).


“Seats for this glittering comedy range from £20 to £49.50, but why not spoil yourself and enjoy the very best seats in the house, our Premium Seats available in the stalls or dress circle, for £65. Mark that special occasion with our bespoke Celebration Packages available at £85 per person offering: Premium seat, access to an exclusive private area, an interval glass of champagne, souvenir programme and a collector’s limited edition show poster.”

That’s all very well but the Whingers are on a budget. There was no way this was going to end up on TKTS. So we did something completely uncharacteristic: in order to get an idea of what the show would look like from space we bought seats in row D of the balcony (that’s the fourth of the four tiers of seating) for £25. We’ve never been up there before and frankly it looks as though the theatre managers don’t get up there much either as the ledges at either side of the auditorium were very dusty indeed. We feel it only fair to mention this as it may account for our distinct lack of engagement. Why do people even bother buying seats that far away from the stage? It’s rubbish.


34 Responses to “Review – The Misanthrope with Keira Knightley, Comedy Theatre”

  1. Z. Says:

    “Why do people even bother buying seats that far away from the stage? It’s rubbish.”

    I don’t know either. I’m a first rows junkie. Anything further than Row E and I don’t buy the ticket. (I have tickets to see this on Monday, row C)

  2. arno Says:

    “Why do people even bother buying seats that far away from the stage?”

    Probably because they don’t have the money to get front row seats, but still would like to go to the theatre sometimes. The elitism and contempt in this sentence are ridiculous.

  3. Did you steal that from Don Black?

    We were also out of sight-ly.

  4. Natasha Says:

    Hmm, I have sympathy on both sides regarding the balcony seat question. Most of my theatre visits while I was at university and indeed in my early 20s, were balcony seats and, believe me, there is a big diffference between £25 and £45 when you’ve been saving up for something.

    I soon became savvier however and often booked for Monday or Tuesday nights or weekday matineess in the hope that I would be upgraded to better seats – which, more often than not, was the case.

  5. sarah Says:

    How pompous to suggest if someone can afford £25 then they can stretch to £49.50. Well I can’t afford to do that, and you have either really lost touch or been lucky enough to have born into money to say something so dismissive.

    I am going to sit in the balcony and enjoy every bit of going to the theatre because I love to go – but can’t often afford to.

  6. Max Says:

    It’s horrid of you, Andrew old chap, to suggest that if one can pay £25, one might as well just stretch to almost double that. Only lately have I been able to countenance doing that, mainly because my money has always had to go on a number of other things. That may make me a loser, but it does not make me an ass.

  7. Tom Says:

    It’s surprisingly uncharacteristic of the Whingers to so completely get the wrong end of the stick about the price of West End theatre seats. When these theatres were designed, ticket-prices reflected the difference between rich and poor. The posh folk sat in the stalls, and people with little money (but a love of the play) sat in the gods. Often on benches. They paid about a fifth of the price to do so.
    Now the differential has been totally eroded. It’s iniquitous of managements, and a rip off, to charge £25 for the balcony. Why not make the stalls £75 and the Balcony £10? It’s at least more honest, fairer, and you might stand some chance of getting what you pay for.

  8. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Put it down to Andrew’s generally grumpiness. Of course there’s a huge difference between £25 and nearly £50 and I disassociate myself from Andrew’s remark.

    But Tom’s right, if the balcony was £10 you’d think fair enough. £25 is an absurd price for those seats, but it begins to look a bargain when you compare it with stalls seats for this week at £40 a pop, Row T with the view obscured by a pillar. Still available at time of writing for anyone barmy enough.

    I used to pay 50p to sit in the gallery as a student when the stalls would have been about 5 times that amount.

    I think the whole levelling of theatre seats pricing has drifted over from Broadway where the difference between front orchestra and back mezzanine isn’t that huge. Like “Premium Seating” it’s a dirty habit that needs stamping on.

    Sarah and Max, I can certainly confirm Andrew can be terribly pompous and horrid. Imagine what I have to cope with on a regular basis.

  9. JohnnyFox Says:

    I’m confused by the updating. If they were really going to make a 21st-century London adaptation of Le Misanthrope, surely it would have been called Le Whinger ?

  10. Chris Says:

    Having been brought up on front stalls seats as a child, (very over indulgent parents, thank God) I get grumpy if I end up ten rows back. I don’t buy tickets in upper circles or balconies because, through experience, I don’t engage with the shows. I get bored and jealous of the people in the better seats.

    For me personally, I’d prefer to see half the number of shows in pricier seats. But that’s just me.

  11. Society Bee Says:

    See two shows at £25 each or one for £50? It’s a decision that, alas, has to be made, and for me it depends greatly on the show and the theatre.

    For example, I wouldn’t dream of seeing something at Her Majesty’s in anything other than seats in the stalls near the front, but I find the Olivier at the National to have perfectly acceptable views from almost anywhere. The Donmar Warehouse also has good views from the balcony (better, I’d say, than the stalls) providing one doesn’t sit too far to the side.

    Big jazzy musicals can be appreciated from the balcony (indeed, one sometimes gets a better view of the dancing from there) but something like The Dumb Waiter needs seats in the stalls.

  12. Mike Says:

    Who exactly is the ass Andrew? Looks rather like yourself. Ridiculous thing to say in the first place.

  13. ms.marple investigates Says:

    I also remember the 50p seats in the gods – and they were 50p – not ten bob, cheeky! I’m queen of the cheap seats, I’m afraid – can’t remember the last time I wasn’t peering out from behind a pillar at the Almeida or inspecting an actor’s bald spot in the WE. Yep, upgrades too on Mons and Tues – also twofers and good deals if you leave it ’til the last minute. Some of us do work in the public sector on measly salaries and love the theatre too. Perhaps the balcony dweller who vomited their Breakfast at Tiffanys over the stalls was aiming for Andrew?

  14. Graham Says:

    Well I like Phil’s opinion, but I also like Andrew’s opinion. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…..FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT

  15. theater cheapskate Says:

    We do not all go to the theater alone, so the difference between 25 and 49 is pretty sugnificant for a family of 4. I’d rather be there at 25 than miss it. And I think it is absurd how far up into the theater the highest price is charged — I’d be upset to pay the same 49 as the person in the first row if I were in the last row of the Royal whatever.

  16. I am most gratified that you have all come round to my way of thinking which is that you pays your money and you takes your choice.

    Like Chris “I’d prefer to see half the number of shows in pricier seats” and as Society Bee says: “See two shows at £25 each or one for £50? It’s a decision that […] depends greatly on the show and the theatre”

    Exactly. We theatregoers are all making choices and it has nothing to do with class or income as some people seem to be implying.

    I stand by what I said which is that the view from the balcony of the Comedy Theatre is rubbish.

    I also continue to wonder why people would knowingly buy seats that far away from the stage because £25 is simply not good value.

    I am quite confident that neither statement is the slightest bit elitist or contemptuous.

    Thank you.

    • Society Bee Says:

      “it has nothing to do with class or income”

      Not quite. The decision is made a great deal easier when £50 is a tiny percentage of your income than when you’re impoverished and even £25 is a big strain on your monthly finances.

      The choice is not about class or income per se, but income does affect how often you have to make the choice and how hard it is and what else you’re giving up to be able to go to the theatre.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      The drag is that all year long I feel like I’ve seen about three shows that were worth 25 quid: Entertaining Mr Sloane, Kursk, and Cock (worth 50 actually – and note the all male Pirates of Penzance would have been worth 25 if it had been in a more roomy hall). Closer helps but a bad show doesn’t look better from the fourth row, and there’s just piles of limp theater out there, all demanding outrageous amounts of money for those coveted stalls seats. And in this case, given the squeaky chairs, it’s really a rip that seats for the Misanthrope were priced at 25 – they should have raised the good seats another ten and made these crap ones cost less.

      Also, who takes a family of four to the theater? I can’t remember seeing this outside of panto or ballet (or “children’s theater”), even in the balcony, a pair of adults and two under-agers. I’d say if you want kids to see a show, you’ll do better having them go with their schools and then getting a good discount on group seats. I see an awful lot of this in English theater (often unfortunately a noisy thing, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was especially bad in this regard) and it’s heartwarming to see the kids getting experience of shows. Their poor parents should be able to go and actually have a nice “date” night though rather than dragging the unappreciative young folks along with them for the “affordable” balcony seats. But then, in my mind, there’s really no point in paying more than 25 quid for almost any show – plenty can be seen at 15 that is of high quality (Royal Court, Donmar, and Union Theatre come to mind) without breaking the bank.

      • Suzanne Says:

        My parents took a family of four to the theatre. Often. And I really appreciate it.

        As long as a child can sit still and shut up for a few hours (if they can’t, then they should be barred from entering the building!) I think parents ought to try to take their children to the theatre. They can appreciate serious theatre, you know. I saw Derek Jacobi in The Tempest when I was twelve and my brother was ten, and we adored it.

        You can’t rely on schools taking children – I hardly ever went with school, and it’s a very different experience.

      • TheTTCritic Says:

        I’ve got conflicting views on the whole ticket price thing but lots of people take their families to the theatre and cost is a major issue. My parents took us all (I’ve three siblings so that’s six of us in total) to the theatre regularly (mostly musicals and ballets but plays not infrequently especially at the National). I wouldn’t be doing anything like what I do now if they hadn’t taken me when I was young. Getting young people involved is a brilliant thing and the earlier the better. Parents should be doing this just as much as schools, much more so in my opinion. An expensive proposition and bringing prices down (clearly a difficult proposition in the non-subsidised sector) can only help this.

        What often alarms me just as much as bottom price being way too high is just how much of some theatres is now priced in the top bracket. I’ve sat in some pretty crap seats that are priced at sixty quid (mostly bought on offers however or I’d really have had a go). Thank god for Theatremonkey I guess.


  17. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    It’s interesting, and really rather heartening, that after a post on the biggest all-about-the-name get-a-big-star-scalp event of the year, discussion has almost immediately turned to the money. It’s as if the commodification of stardom has been completed and, as Bernard Shaw remarked in another context, all we’re doing now is haggling over the price. There’s even an element of class war in the exchanges. It warms my old unregenerate socialist cockles, so it does.

  18. […] (This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, December 11th, 2009. It continues through March 13th. My guess is that it will probably really be worth watching some time in January, so no rush. For an alternate view, I offer the wit and wisdom of the West End Whingers.) […]

  19. […] More positive fan reaction from the blogs: The Burden of Dreams, Life in the Cheap Seats, and West End Whingers. […]

  20. Juliet Says:

    OK I’m late to the price discussion but with all the negative comments on Andrew’s opinion I want to give him some support on this. I rather see fewer shows from good seats than sit on the balcony all the time. I have also found I can’t get engrossed in a play/musical when I’m too far away, have to strain my ears to understand what’s being said and to squint to see something of the people’s facial expression. Then I leave, disappointed in the show, and ultimately £25 completely wasted.

    Especially when I’d go and see something because of a star. I’m seeing this one because I’m a big fan of Damian Lewis – don’t care much about Kiera Knightley – and I want to see the guy close up, not as a tiny redhead dot on the stage far away.

    I agree though that the pricing is ridiculous these days. Balcony is far too expensive. If you could sit up there for £5 it would be different. Personally I also hate how far back in the stalls top price extends. The view from row 20 on the side is definitely not at all the same as row 3 center.

  21. alan fowle Says:

    Went to see this play last Wednesday seats
    near the stage.
    Walked out at the interval I nodding off my
    wife bored – why? dfifficult to care about the unwashed unshaven Alceste or the other
    fairy lights strewn about the stage – who cares about ther opinions od characters you feel no empathy for?
    Waste of time save your money for genuine wit – Keira was as good as she could be -not her fault it was the script ,the direction,
    and everything – at sheekeys afterwards we complained on returning there they told us
    someone came in who like it

  22. Pryers Says:

    I was going to see this in January, but slightly put off by the comments. Am I wasting my time and money as I am coming down from Sheffield?

  23. jonny fantastic Says:

    i’m going to see this tomorrow, but must confess it’s a double edged interest.
    my wife studied moliere and the misanthrope for french a-level so i bought a brace of tickets as a kind of christmas present.
    what do i get out of it…? ahem, i may have booked row “a” in the stalls, bang in the middle, some may see this as a tad sad, but the combined attraction of ms knightley and ms fitzgerald was too much to miss.

  24. Apollonium Says:

    I was taken to see this as a Christmas present by the theatre-loving girl of my life. Yes, we were in the front row of the circle and if one isn’t the greatest of theatre lovers then the £25/50 difference becomes even larger.
    That said, the performance from any seat seemed somewhat disturbed by the large number of foreign students apparently there to watch Ms. Knightly and discussing their student notes / how she’d be more attractive if she could just lose a bit of weight….

    Wonderful play, but destroyed by the altered ending and addition of an interval 7/8ths of the way through which appeared to exist only to sell drinks and ice cream….

    Back to NT’s GBP for turning up tickets, I’m afraid.

  25. Rev Stan Says:

    I saw it last night and didn’t find it that engaging either and I was sat on the front row. Little Dog Laughed was more entertaining but I think Keira wins over boyfriend Rupert in the acting stakes.

  26. what a shame so many people were disappointed by the overall take on this play – cant be down to the standard of the actors (and actress)

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