Theatre: Battle, loss and chills

Written By: William Russell
Published: November 14, 2017 Last modified: November 16, 2017

Venus in Fur
Haymarket Theatre, London

Anything that Flies
Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Tabard Theatre, London

In David Ives’ Venus in Fur, writer and director Thomas (David Oakes) is in his elegant New York penthouse at the end of a day of auditions for his latest play based on the famous novel by Leopold Ritter von ­Sacher-Masoch. A storm is brewing and the lightning flashes and the storm clouds can be seen through the long skylights running the length of the room. He is anxious to get home to his girlfriend.

Then in bursts Vanda (Natalie Dormer, pictured with Oakes), an actress late for the audition, who has come prepared – she is wearing the necessary dominatrix costume and in her laundry bag is everything else needed for the role in Thomas’s play. The girl in that is called Vanda, too.
He says she is not right for the part, she insists, his girlfriend is called, he starts to crumble, they begin to play scenes from his play, which Vanda clearly knows very well, and everything gets very confused.

There is the real-life battle of the sexes and the one in Sacher-Masoch’s tale. Both Dormer and Oakes are very good, but it is all, given the current furore about predatory men and abused women, somewhat queasy. It is interesting that it is Dormer who gets her clothes off and dons the kinky boots while Oakes does not so much as undo a shirt button.

The play, directed stylishly by Patrick Marber, has enjoyed considerable success elsewhere, but it is an odd piece which comes to no very obvious conclusion, although it is clear that the dominating David is now ­dominated.

A first play by author Judith Burnley, Anything that Flies is a moving two-hander about two people who have lost their homeland and never fitted in to the countries in which they have ended up living. They are, however, survivors.

Otto Huberman, played by Clive Merrison, is an elderly Jewish businessman – he invented and sold superior hi fi systems and is a gifted amateur violinist – who has had a stroke.
He lives alone and is determined not to accept help.

His daughter, who lives in Israel, sends a friend, Charlotta, a widow whose family lost everything, like Otto’s family, when the Nazis came to power. They gradually become friends as they discover more about each other’s past.

The play is very episodic and while director Alex Hamilton keeps it all moving briskly – it is a fashionable 90-minute, no interval piece – there do seem rather a lot of moments with Charlotta entering and exiting with trays of food.

Stage meals, which seem never to get eaten, are always a problem. One in particular, when she serves roast chicken, leads to the final revelation by Oscar, which is both horrifying and moving.
Issy van Randwyck has caught to perfection that peculiar German steeliness – Charlotta blames herself for the death of a much-loved governess – which conceals a much softer personality to perfection.

As for Clive Merrison, he is bloody mindedness personified as a lonely old man, and his big speech in reaction to the roast chicken is delivered beautifully. There may be no future for Otto, but for Charlotta there is a chance as their friendship has helped her face up to her demons.

Natasha J Barnes, who took over the lead in Funny Girl when the star fell ill, receiving rave reviews, plays the fly confronted by the spider in Karoline Leach’s play Tryst, the gripping two-hander last seen in London 20 years ago. She is Adelaide, a shy milliner in her late 20s doomed, she believes, to spinsterhood, who meets George Love, played by Fred Terry. He is a con man who specialises in picking up lonely women, seducing them – even marrying them – and stealing their savings. He spots Adelaide while she is putting a hat she had made in the window of the shop where she works.

She duly falls victim to his charms, but Adelaide reveals herself as made of stronger stuff than at first seems and rumbles what he is up to. The pair then embark on a game of cat and mouse as she proposes how they can prosper, and he, incapable of making the leap to reality, keeps dodging making a ­commitment.

It is a chilling little piece and Barnes and Terry are very good indeed. Adelaide is by no means fat as she claims, although she is indeed buxom, but George has all the surface charm of a phoney. The end may take some by surprise, although the fact that it is based on a true story may mean some realise who will win early on.

Either way the playing is good, director Phoebe Barran has kept it moving apace – this is another 90-minute, no interval affair – and the fact is mice, flies and women should beware cats, spiders and men – especially men who offer to help you have a bath.