Frost/Nixon was the third LADS play I’d seen in my NODA capacity and the previous two had set the quality bar very high. Although comparisons are not always fair or even useful, previous productions naturally give your audience a degree of expectation. With Frost/Nixon my high expectations were undoubtedly met and, in many aspects, surpassed. This was an exceptional production, acted and directed with great care and skill, telling an enthralling tale superbly.
Choice of play
Interpretations of well-known characters is a big ask for actors, not everyone is Martin Sheen, but in the hands of the quality of this LADS cast the audience were able to be taken into this world and emotionally engaged in the story.
Front of House
An excellent programme, as always, and the Who’s Who? was interesting and informative. Thank you, Howard Platt, for another good piece of design.
Set and Staging
The TV camera and spotlight were a nice touch, particularly as the spotlight was echoed on the programme.
The large screen projecting the images worked on a number of fronts. A TV for a TV based play of course, but also the choice of the hotel room, the residence, London, the Dinner Party etc. gave the audience a useful map of where each scene was set. It enabled a minimalist set to convey the variety of numerous scenes. The close-up photo of Nixon’s face illustrated Jim’s speech like a picture book. Very clever and well thought through. I see more video and projection being used in amateur theatre, it adds another dimension for the audience.
The tremendous pace throughout swept the storytelling along. That’s not to say that the poignant moments were washed over, far from it. When a play has pace, the tone has somewhere to go to when required to calm. The linking between all those scenes was expertly handled. One example was when Jim Renton moved into a New York scene and in a stride we were taken to NYC and in another he was shaking Frost’s hand. Also changing the chairs on the hoof with an efficient crew getting on with the task. It all enabled the retention of the pace and the seamless flow between scenes which could have been clunky in less expert hands.
The telephones on either side of the stage with the actors looking out front worked well and was consistent throughout. There was a lovely picture of the three aides in half-light focused on Frost whilst he was on the phone to Nixon towards the end of Act 1.
Most of the scenes required little movement which was well disciplined and respected by the actors. The interview in the armchairs was by definition static. However, the movement and the body language was a masterpiece of attentive direction. I loved the careful detailing of every lean in and sway back, the hand to mouth when in defence and the open gestures of attack. We think of setting actors to cross the stage, to sit or stand, but here was setting in a different guise. Very impressive.
The Boxing analogies hit me right between the eyes. Jack starts these when introducing the interview and the script runs with it with lines such as “throwing in the towel” or “worthy opponent”. Karen created a full heavyweight bout with each character going for the win. Even the final round was preceded by the two challenges facing off with a “Mr President, Mr Frost” before ‘touching gloves’ and awaiting the bell.
The final champagne moment pose drew this play to a celebratory close and your audience were wanting to applaud with gratitude and admiration.
The makeup was striking and changed Andrew’s appearance dramatically, excellent work of whoever administered. With the distinctive voice and accent that was consistent throughout and the slow methodical walk, Andrew enveloped this character.
At times we saw the showman who understood television. With his presidential wave and greeting that even impacted Jim Renton, you could believe here was a successful elected representative. His ability to tell an absorbing story about meeting Brezhnev or an after-dinner speech gave Andrew the opportunities to move into different gears and we warmed to his Nixon.
Andrew also portrayed the man whose desire for wealth overshadowed his decision making. We saw his angst at being in the wheelchair. We saw the anger of Nixon once Watergate was mentioned and eventually the exhaustion of trying to continue to hide the lies.
I really admired the anger and menace Andrew achieved in his speech on the telephone to Frost as he attempted to push Frost’s face further “into the dirt”. This showed Nixon’s poor judgement that dogged his political career as the speech actually became motivational to Frost and inspired him to go for the win in the final round. Under pressure Nixon cracks and unconvincingly pleads that he is “not a criminal” “not illegal”.
Great work, much enjoyed!
Who is Frost and how should he be portrayed? is a running theme throughout the play. Is he “a performer not a journalist or an interviewer”, a talk show host on Australian Television? Is he attempting to build his celebrity status, disappointed at being compared to Vidal Sassoon? Caroline describes him as “The vain, self-important older man” who drives a Bentley not a Rolls Royce.
In contrast to his three aides, Frost finds this all a bit of a game. This is the mix that Christian demonstrated so well in his portrayal, showing all sides of Frost and by the end I’m not sure we are any clearer who he actually is. Indeed, today, how would anyone define David Frost?
Christian’s work in the interview was exceptional. We saw the contrast of Frost trying to get into the conversation that Nixon was controlling and winning. We saw the vulnerability of Frost in the dressing room when this project was on the ropes and the Australian show was cancelled.
For the final round of the Watergate interview Christian initially took on a relaxed temperament, he gave us “something different”. He was then able to move gear for the rapid jabs that rocked Nixon. The well-known “three things to say” was beautiful and a lesson in delivery. It even caused Nixon to nervously lick his lips for what may have been the first time in the play.
The relish Christian showed in the final pose, back amongst the celebrities, will be a lasting image.
There is a challenge of how to play narration to an audience. Should it be a conversation or a lecture? Should Jim be a host or a reporter? I think on balance Philip played it correctly not compromising pace or tone when addressing the audience directly. It could be argued that there was a missed opportunity to change gears and bring the audience into the story as with a Shakespearean soliloquy. This however can become patronising and lose some realism.
Jack Brennan was a Colonel in the US Marines and saw active service in Vietnam. He was firstly a military man rather than an administrator and therefore would likely stand very straight and tall. We got the tall from Nick but not always straight. Nick’s accent was on the whole good with a little waiver here and there. It is Jack that introduces the Boxing analogy and it was believable that Jack had boxed. A square jaw with a long reach, good casting.
I also appreciated Nick’s discipline in walking into the light and then out of it when intervening during the interview. It was important that no one other than Frost and Nixon was in camera shot and Nick led the line on this.
As a three Jon, Philip and Adam linked well together. Their different characters complemented each other and there was some generosity as each was afforded their moments of dialogue. Three strong characters, well played, gave the play the depth and interest beyond the main two protagonists.
Manola Sanchez, Swifty Lazar, Mike Wallace
Further support came from Marcel Kaye, Michael Lewkowicz and Richard Cohen. On the whole accents were good as were the characterisations. Perhaps the “CBS hatchet man” could have been a little more fierce and the Hollywood talent agent a little more ruthless. The cheque was there for the snatching.
Others ably assisted the scenes and the telling of the story.
Sound and Lighting
Great choices of sound effects from the aeroplane bleep to the dinner party cutlery. The music was appropriate and of the time. I liked the way ‘Nobody Does it Better’ was left on for the audience to exit to.
The lighting design brought in the camera lens during the interview and divided the playing area well for other various scenes. Good blackouts, I thought, which is not always easy at Lopping Hall.
Another excellently costumed production by Liz Adams. The double-breasted suits, flared trousers, ties and the President’s casual wear was well researched and implemented. Glasses were of period as were the wigs. The Italian shoes were pleasingly as described and when the play allowed for a colourful dress then Amy, Judith and Elizabeth were well catered for. Even the full air hostess uniform had another appearance and the army uniform was spot on.
This level of care and detail brought an authenticity to this play.
The Frost/Nixon story is worth telling but the portrayal of such famous figures is difficult and not for the unskilled. With excellent direction and actors prepared to work hard in and out of rehearsals, LADS achieved another notable success. Thank you for a great evening’s entertainment.