Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Theatre review: The Birthday Party

Paradoxically famous both for making Harold Pinter’s name as a playwright and for being a notorious flop when it was first produced – its only rave review being published after it had already closed early - The Birthday Party gets a birthday party of its own, as Pinter’s eponymous theatre hosts a 60th anniversary production from Ian Rickson. The setting, in a suitably shabby design by Quay Brothers and gloomy lighting by Hugh Vanstone, is the sitting room and kitchen of a boarding house in a seaside town where Petey (Peter Wight) is a deckchair attendant. His wife Meg (Zoë Wanamaker,) possibly in the early stages of dementia, runs the house and looks after the guest, serving up corn flakes with sour milk and burnt fried bread. This may explain why there’s only one guest – Stanley (Toby Jones) is a former concert pianist who’s lived there for the last year, barely leaving the house where Meg variously babies him and flirts with him.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Theatre review: Strangers in Between

Trafalgar Studio 2 has, unsurprisingly given its size, carved out a niche as a venue for transferring shows that did well on the fringe to somewhere a bit more central. The Finborough and Old Red Lion have been regular visitors and now the King’s Head takes a turn with Australian playwright Tommy Murphy’s Strangers in Between. Shane (Roly Botha) is 19 but both looks and acts young for his age, having grown up gay in a remote town best known for its prison, which houses a couple of notorious recent criminals. He’s fled his abusive older brother and turned up in Sydney’s King’s Cross district, known as a dodgy area but soon feeling safer for him than his home town. Still getting used to being open about his sexuality, he soon finds a couple of mentors in camp father figure Peter (Stephen Connery-Brown) and potential romantic interest Will (Dan Hunter.)

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Theatre review: My Mum's a Twat

First-time playwrights often prove naturals at certain aspects of the job, while others need to be developed over time. One thing Anoushka Warden has clearly got an instinct for is coming up with a title that’ll get people in to see your play in the first place, as evidenced by her debut My Mum’s a Twat. It’s an autobiographical monologue (it’s described as “an unreliable version of a true story filtered through a hazy memory and vivid imagination”) performed by Future Dame Patsy Ferran on a Chloe Lamford set that at first glance looks like a teenage girl’s bedroom (the audience seating includes beanbags as well as more traditional chairs.) In fact it’s more like a scrapbook come to life, the different sections of the walls decorated with pictures of her favourite things – Tupac, David Jason, her dog – and the shelves full of music and films that remind her of her extended family of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Theatre review: The Grinning Man

A musical based on a Victor Hugo novel? IT’LL NEVER WORKetc.

It feels like I’ve had a long wait for Carl Grose (book,) Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler’s (music) new musical The Grinning Man (with lyrics by all of the above, plus director Tom Morris.) I heard raves when it opened in Bristol in 2016, and then I had to postpone my trip to the London transfer last month when I got ill. But a great cast help make this arrestingly grotesque show worth the wait. In many ways it reminded me of last year’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare The Freak: It also makes heavy use of puppetry to tell the musical story of a freak show, and a star attraction equal parts repellent and attractive. It’s also another French story, although instead of elaborating on historical fact this comes from a late Victor Hugo fantasy, here relocated to an alternate Lon Don; its palace might be in Catford, but the theatre’s real-life location a few blocks from Downing Street is frequently evoked in relation to the royal family motto of “to him that hath, much more shall be given; to him that hath little, it shall be taken away.”

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Theatre review: Belleville

Paris Syndrome is a temporary mental illness that affects visitors to the French capital, possibly caused by a place so romanticised in popular culture turning out to be just as real and down-to-earth as anywhere else. It primarily affects Japanese tourists because the “city of love” image is particularly strongly endorsed in Japan so the disappointment is greater, but presumably Americans are also susceptible to this: It would explain why it becomes the obvious setting for Amy Herzog’s Belleville, a play that takes place entirely in an American couple’s apartment. Zack (James Norton) and Abby (Imogen Poots) got married pretty young, most likely too young as Abby wanted her terminally ill mother to make it to her wedding. Since her mother’s death she’s suffered from anxiety and depression, but is now attempting to come off her medication.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Theatre review: White Fang

When the Park announced its winter season, an adaptation of White Fang in the studio space seemed easy to skip until I noticed it was written and directed by Jethro Compton – after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance became a surprise favourite of mine a few years ago, another trip to the 19th century North American frontiers suddenly seemed more appealing. This is described as “inspired by” rather than “adapted from” Jack London’s novel, and although I haven’t read it a look at the Wikipedia page suggests that’s fair, the story bears little resemblance beyond the setting – Canada’s Yukon Territory during the Gold Rush – and some of the characters. Lyzbet Scott (Mariska Ariya) is a young Native American girl whose entire tribe was massacred in a dispute with wolf hunters when she was a child; one of the hunters, Weedon Scott (Robert G. Slade,) rescued her and adopted her as his granddaughter.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

BABY BABY BABYthat's another year done with in London theatre, which means it must be time for me to pass judgement on it. I have to say that in all the years I've written one of these roundups, this is probably the least idea I've had starting out, what the Top Ten is going to look like by the time I get to the end of it. It feels like a pretty solid year in terms of what's actually ended up on stage, with two categories in particular coming out very strong and likely to dominate my list. It probably helps that I've tried to be more selective with what I go to see, it's amazing how much less crap you see when you deliberately avoid things that sound terrible. If you look at the total number of blog posts for every year since 2012, you'll see that managing to keep it under 200 shows is, by my standards, something of an achievement in handling my theatre addiction.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Theatre review: Bananaman

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Bananaman is having its press night late in its run, presumably for reasons of Christmas.

Southwark Playhouse has looked to Japanese comics in the past for its Christmas family show, but this year it's found a superhero closer to home. Based on a character created by David Donaldson in 1980 (his first-ever comic strip is reprinted in the programme) who appeared in various British comics as well as the famous TV cartoon voiced by The Goodies, Bananaman now gets his own musical written and composed by Leon Parris. Eric Wimp (Mark Newnham) is a nerdy 16-year-old who's bullied at school and can't pluck up the courage to ask out his friend Fiona (Emma Ralston.) But one night, while he's out watching the skies, a shard from a comet falls to earth, knocking him out. When he wakes up he finds that every time he eats a banana he transforms into Bananaman (Matthew McKenna,) a superhero with the muscles of twenty men, and the brains of twenty mussels.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Theatre review: Misalliance

Paul Miller's seasonal offering is what has become his personal trademark at the Orange Tree, another lesser-known play by one of the best-loved late 19th or early 20th century playwrights. It's Bernard Shaw's turn again, with Misalliance a fairly straightforward attempt at a knockabout comedy, although one with a message that would have still ruffled a few feathers in 1909. Tarleton (Pip Donaghy) is a self-made man who made a fortune with his brand of hard-wearing underwear. He sent his children to the most expensive schools so that they wouldn't mingle with the aristocracy (they're always asking for loans they never pay back) but somehow his daughter Hypatia (Marli Siu) has still got engaged to Bentley (Rhys Isaac-Jones,) youngest and oddest son of Lord Summerhays (Simon Shepherd.)

Friday, 22 December 2017

Theatre review: Pinocchio

Going by the last couple of offerings, Rufus Norris' vision for Christmas family shows at the National involves the most familiar stories being given unfamiliar stagings. If I wasn't really sold on a vision of Peter Pan as "quite looking forward to getting his bus pass," this year's interpretation of Pinocchio as "Joe Idris-Roberts with his nips out" is perhaps a more likely fit to my interests. And the story itself, a pretty dark one at heart and much less frequently staged, is closer to my liking of the more gothic side of children's stories. Adaptor Dennis Kelly and director John Tiffany certainly seem to agree, with a disorientating production: This saw me return to the theatre after a few days of being too ill to go out and having to miss some shows I was really keen on, and perhaps there could be no better fit when I'm still feeling a bit wobbly, as Pinocchio has always had a touch of the fever-dream to it.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Theatre review: Barnum

One thing you can usually expect from the Menier Chocolate Factory is a pretty safe palate and a commercial sensibility, so it’s a surprise to see them spaff a big budget and their Christmas show on a gamble, and one that doesn’t pay off at that. Maybe it’s a reflection of Cy Coleman (music,) Michael Stewart (lyrics) and Mark Bramble’s (book) hero and his tendency to lay the big decisions in his life on the toss of a coin that’s led Gordon Greenberg’s production to cast Marcus Brigstocke in a part he has no obvious qualification for, the titular role in Barnum. The 19th century impresario P.T. Barnum was given the name (most likely by himself) The Greatest Showman, and the musical follows his earlier forays into show business (his co-founding of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus is pretty much the show’s epilogue) and his relationship with his wife Charity (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) who provides the nous behind his flair for spectacle.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Theatre review: Imperium Part I: Conspirator

Following the transatlantic success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, it's not a big surprise if the RSC wants to replicate it by giving Mike Poulton another sequence of historical novels to adapt into a two-part epic play. And as 2017 has been the company's year for exploring Shakespeare's Roman plays, Rome is where Poulton now takes us, for Robert Harris' Cicero Trilogy. Imperium begins with Conspirator, an accusation that could be leveled at a number of its characters, including the man with the biggest claim to defeating them: Cicero (Richard McCabe) is still remembered as one of the great orators, but his political career will require him to adopt means of manipulation beyond what he can persuade a crowd of. Tiro (Joseph Kloska,) the slave who serves as his private secretary, is the affable narrator of an eventful year in Cicero's life, and its aftermath.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Theatre review: The Twilight Zone

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It’s quite camp there, actually.

There’s definitely something that feels seasonal about the Almeida’s latest show, although it’s hard to put my finger on quite why; maybe it’s not Christmassy as such but there’s something apt about cold days and long nights welcoming The Twilight Zone. Anne Washburn’s is the first stage adaptation of Rod Serling’s TV series – the 1960s original which Serling created, narrated and wrote most of the episodes of, rather than either of the revivals. In Richard Jones’ production John Marquez plays a version of Serling as well as, like the rest of the 10-strong cast, numerous other roles in a selection of stories from the original series that have been thrown together into a pleasingly disorienting show. Prior to the show opening the Almeida were being secretive about which episodes in particular were being adapted, so if you want to go in keeping that a surprise consider this a SPOILER ALERT about which stories go into the mix.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Theatre review: Grimly Handsome

In a week at the theatre that’s fast developing a theme of dreamlike oddity – and I haven’t even seen The Twilight Zone yet - Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome plays out like a Christmas comedy nightmare. The Royal Court’s old rehearsal space above Sloane Square station has been used as an actual performance venue so often by now that they’ve given it a name – The Site – and that’s where designer Chloe Lamford and director Sam Pritchard – credited as co-creators – have set their particular vision for the play. This sees the whole building decked out as an art installation, with the audience invited to turn up twenty minutes early and explore the various rooms Lamford has decorated with a kitsch aesthetic: A gym with walls covered in magazine cuttings of bodybuilders, a room filled with artsy photos on the theme of infidelity and, on the balcony, a crime scene tent.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Theatre review: Dear Brutus

J. M. Barrie’s Dear Brutus may take its title from Julius Caesar, but the Shakespeare play it borrows most overtly from is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lob (Robin Hooper) is a puckish – literally – old man who’s invited a group of strangers with one thing in common to spend the week at his home. As his guests try to figure out what their mysterious common characteristic is, they hear a local legend of a magical wood that appears in a different spot every Midsummer’s Eve; anyone who enters it is never seen again. The enchanted wood does appear, of course, and most of the guests do enter it, but in a three-act structure that’s like a much better-done version of The Passing of the Third Floor Back, they do all emerge again, all changed to varying degrees. This is a play full of wild variations in tone, as what each group of characters discovers in the wood is very different.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Theatre review: The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights was, for me, one of those things from childhood I'd completely forgotten about until a stage version was announced, and I suddenly remembered loving the slightly sinister 1984 TV adaptation. I'm normally worried about seeming a bit creepy turning up to kids' shows on my own but staging this at Wilton's Music Hall with a big-name creative team - Justin Audibert directing, Tom Piper designing - made this a memory lane trip I didn't want to miss. I needn't have worried about standing out, as with the majority of tonight's audience being in their forties I think this is largely attracting people for the same reason. Not that those children who were brought along didn't seem to be entirely enchanted as well by a production whose simple aesthetic fits in as well with the faded grandeur of its surroundings, as John Masefield's alternative Christmas story itself does.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Theatre review: Hamilton

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Although tonight's performance wasn't due to be a preview when I booked it, the repair works on the Victoria Palace overrunning meant the press night was put back*.

If there was any doubt that the people I work with aren't really theatre fans, Exhibit A: When they asked me what I was doing for my birthday and I said I was going to Hamilton they said "what, in Scotland?" Outside of my office, though, excitement over Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest musical seems to be at fever pitch. Quite apart from all the awards it's been the hottest ticket on Broadway since it opened, and its (slightly delayed) London opening more or less sold out instantly. I'd deliberately avoided listening to any of the songs so it could stand on its own, but it was clear that even on its third public performance the theatre was full of people familiar with the score and enthusiastic for Miranda's high-speed history lesson about America's founding fathers and particularly Alexander Hamilton (Jamael Westman,) who appears on the $10 note but is otherwise comparatively obscure.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Theatre review: How to Win Against History

With drag all over the West End, the Young Vic's Maria gets in on the act, although the cross-dressing in How to Win Against History is a bit of a red herring, or at least the tip of the iceberg. Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, was ridiculously wealthy even for an Edwardian aristocrat, but managed to end up dying destitute at the age of 29 thanks to his extravagant lifestyle, which included elaborate drag, rebuilding his family chapel into a personal theatre, and travelling the country putting on shows nobody wanted to see. His family were so ashamed of him they burnt all pictures of him they could find after his death, and attempted to wipe him out of history altogether. Clearly they didn't quite succeed, but very little information about this notable eccentric has survived, so Seiriol Davies' cabaret version of his life story is by necessity largely guesswork.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Theatre review: The Passing of the Third Floor Back

As you might be able to infer from my photo, I’m quite partial to a cheeseburger. Although it would presumably be pretty synonymous with an instant heart attack, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted by Byron’s Christmas Fromagemas burger this year, featuring four different types of cheese as well as a jug of cheese sauce to pour over your cheese in case your cheese wasn’t cheesy enough. If all this indulgence seems like a particularly 21st century type of excess, I would have to point out that 110 years ago West End audiences made a hit of Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back, a play featuring toxic levels of cheese they presumably couldn’t get enough of. Mrs Sharpe (Anna Mottram) runs a London boarding house for what she considers to be a better class of clientele, but everyone there is miserable and trying to get one over on each other.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Theatre review: Privates on Parade

Peter Nichols and Dennis King’s revue-style play Privates on Parade was last in London five years ago in an entertaining, starry West End production that papered over a lot of the problematic cracks. It now gets a much more intimate 40th-anniversary revival at the Union, and while Kirk Jameson’s production has its moments, it also feels much more exposing of the ways Nichols’ social commentary has dated. During the Malayan Emergency that came soon after the Second World War, Private Steve Flowers (Samuel Curry) is transferred from intelligence to SADUSEA, the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, which tours the area giving morale-boosting performances to the troops. They’re led by Acting Captain Terri Dennis (Simon Green,) who likes to perform as Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and, if he’s feeling particularly butch, Noël Coward.