Saturday, 20 May 2017

Theatre review: Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey

The Roman theme of this year's RSC season in Stratford extends to the Swan, most obviously in Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey. Phil Porter's farce is inspired by the plays of Plautus, although they're not the only thing that's been "lovingly ripped off" - that tagline itself comes from Spamalot, and Janice Honeyman's production resembles nothing so much as a Carry On film - there's even a nod to the famous "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me" line from the play's gull, Braggadocio (Felix Hayes.) The vain and ludicrous General returns to Rome from a war, bringing with him some of the people he's enslaved - including the lady Voluptua (Ellie Beaven,) whom he's taken as a concubine.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Theatre review: Life of Galileo

Lizzie Clachan has turned the Young Vic into a planetarium for Joe Wright's production of Brecht's Life of Galileo, one of the most visually stunning and inventive shows on the London stage right now. The set is in the round, with a central pit where some of the audience sit on cushions, with the actors mingling around them. It gives the impression of a group of students in a relaxed setting, sitting around a charismatic teacher who's on a roll. The teacher is Galileo Galilei (Brendan Cowell,) the subject he's excited about the Copernican Heresy, which proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and which astronomer Giordano Bruno had recently been burned at the stake for promoting. But Galileo teaches in Padua, which has a special exemption from the Inquisition's clutches and besides, having stolen credit for the invention of the telescope, he now has a tool that he can actually use to look at the stars and prove Copernicus right.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Theatre review: Salomé (National Theatre)

It's looking as if the successful Les Blancs was a fluke, and Yaël Farber really does believe that people walking around a stage incredibly slowly is the very essence of Dame Theatre. Her Salomé, which she writes as well as directing, has the tagline "the tale retold," but it's arguable whether it does even that - if you were raised in a non-Christian society and had never heard of Salomé, would you be any the wiser after this? I wouldn't put money on it. She's the niece and adopted daughter of King Herod, who lusts after her and demands an erotic dance from her in return for anything she desires; she asks for the head of the prophet Iokanaan, also known as John the Baptist. On stage the story is best known in the sole tragedy written by Oscar Wilde - which the RSC are, coincidentally, about to stage - in which her motives are those of a vengeful woman spurned, but Farber has a different interpretation of why she was so bloodthirsty.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Theatre review: A Lie of the Mind

I'm still a long way from being a fan of Sam Shepard's work but I've been getting on a lot better with the plays that have been revived this year. They're still quintessentially American, and a focus on what it means to be an American man is at the heart of them, but like in Buried Child there's a wider scope of interest and an unsettling edge of the surreal to A Lie of the Mind. Initially appearing to be about domestic violence, it becomes a spiral of insanity as the violent, unpredictable drunk Jake (Gethin Anthony) arrives at his brother's house claiming that he's beaten his wife to death. In fact Beth (Alexandra Dowling) is still alive, but the attack has left her with brain damage. Jake, too, seems to be out of his mind, the extremity of his violence leading to a nervous breakdown. Both of them get taken back to their parents' homes to recover, but neither house is really a good place for anyone's mental health.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (Union Theatre)

Sometimes my, some might say fairly reasonable, resolution not to see plays I already know I don't like, is at odds with my intention to keep an eye on gay-themed theatre, and see if it's being held to a high quality. Which brings me to the Union's adapted version of Romeo and Juliet, which director Andy Bewley gives not one but two high concepts: It's now a gay love story, and one set in a world synonymous with toxic masculinity - professional football. Montague and Capulet are two Verona teams with an historic rivalry, Romeo (Abram Rooney) plays on the former's youth team, Juliet (Sam Perry) on the latter's, and when they fall instantly and violently in love feel the need to keep it secret. Especially once Romeo ends up in the middle of a violent clash between the two sides that leaves two people dead.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Theatre review: The Treatment

The latest Almeida season opens with Martin Crimp's 1993 play The Treatment - "treatment" as in the summary of a movie pitch, as well as the way people treat each other. Anne (Aisling Loftus) is describing a difficult life, culminating in her marriage: Kept in a small apartment she never leaves, her husband would sometimes tie and gag her, not to abuse her physically but to give lengthy speeches, waxing lyrical about car parks and strip lights. She's telling her story to Jennifer (Indira Varma) and Andrew (Julian Ovenden,) married as well as being producing partners, and interested in developing her story. They bring in down-and-out playwright Clifford (Ian Gelder) to script it, and bombastic actor John (Gary Beadle) to play the husband, as well as to provide some star wattage that'll attract investors.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Theatre review: Manwatching

It originated at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago, which may explain why Manwatching's high concept relies on a plentiful supply of stand-up comedians: The comic monologue is written by a woman, who's been kept anonymous for reasons that aren't entirely surprising (the fact that she mentions having trained as an actor made me think Alecky Blythe*, but it would be a major change of style for her, and besides, there's nothing to say it's an established playwright, for all I know this could be her first work ever staged.) Whoever she is, this is very much a woman's story, but delivered by a different man every night. The Royal Court has listed the male comedians who'll be taking part but not their schedule, so you don't know who your performer is until they arrive onstage - tonight it was Adam Buxton, to the obvious excitement of some of the audience, who walked out onto a stage bare except for an elderly printer. The printer's there because the comedians have no idea what the content of the monologue is; it prints out 45 pages of script while they introduce themselves.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Theatre review: Assata Taught Me

It must surely be time for Ellen McDougall to announce her first shows as Artistic Director of the Gate, and if there's one thing I hope she carries on from her predecessor's run - apart from the overall quality, but you'd hope she's aiming for that anyway - it's the short and snappy running times. After the epic run of last night's show I was looking forward to something more concise, and Christopher Haydon's final piece of programming provides it. Kalungi Ssebandeke's debut play Assata Taught Me is short, sharp and sometimes even sweet, imagining what life might be like as one of the world's most-wanted women. Assata Shakur was a high-profile Black Panther, imprisoned for killing a policeman; she escaped and fled to Cuba where she's been ever since, but she remains on the FBI's Most Wanted list, with a $2 million bounty on her head. So, at least as Ssebandeke imagines her, she's free but always has to stay on the alert.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Theatre review: The Ferryman

The last time Jez Butterworth wrote a 3-and-a-half hour rural epic for the Royal Court Downstairs it was the mega-hit Jerusalem, and his latest looks to replicate at least some of that success: It sold out at the Royal Court and had already announced a West End transfer months before opening. But where Jerusalem was a very particular vision of England, The Ferryman takes us to 1980s Northern Ireland and the issue that's dominated centuries of its history. The Troubles are both distant and ever-present in a remote farm in County Armagh where IRA man-turned-farmer Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) now lives with his extended family. As well as his wife Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly) and their seven children, this includes several elderly aunts and uncles plus his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone,) who've lived there ever since Quinn's brother vanished ten years earlier.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (RSC / RST & Barbican)

It's ironic that Gregory Doran, to me the epitome of reverential, by-the-numbers Shakespeare, should have delivered my favourite-ever Julius Caesar a few years ago in a comparatively exciting and revelatory production; because Doran having temporarily handed over the reins to Angus Jackson for the Roman season at the RSC, it's Jackson who now serves up perhaps the most vanilla version of the same play I've seen so far. Have no doubt you can expect togas, swords and sandals from Robert Innes Hopkins' design as Julius Caesar (Andrew Woodall) returns to Rome triumphant after a military victory. His popularity sees the people clamour to give him political power at home, but not everyone's impressed: Cassius (Martin Hutson) has never been a favourite of Caesar's and doesn't want to wait and see how he'll fare under the new regime.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Theatre review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

In one of the complete restructurings of the Donald and Margot Warehouse auditorium that have been an occasional theme during Josie Rourke's tenure, Peter McKintosh has added an extra row of seats to make the circle in-the-round, and removed all the stalls seating, to be replaced by tables and chairs all around the stage. It transforms the venue into a Prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy for Simon Evans' production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, about a man seen as a joke, rising to great power and bringing destruction in his wake. Arturo Ui (Lenny Henry) is a lumbering, awkward gangster who chances upon some dirt on the powerful Dogsborough (Michael Pennington,) and blackmails his way into the city's cauliflower trade. With the success of his protection racket over the vegetable market, Ui takes acting lessons to disguise his awkwardness and make him a better public speaker, and his new mix of threats and rhetoric starts to build a following.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Theatre review: The Cardinal

It may be a Troupe production at Southwark Playhouse's smaller space but the Royal Shakespeare Company's fingerprints are all over The Cardinal: The director and many of the cast are RSC regulars, there's a feeling the text has been thoroughly investigated, the programme features both articles from academics and a misleading running time, and there's even a dance break, as was de rigeur during the Michael Boyd years. The fact that James Shirley's play has even seen the light of day again can be traced back to the RSC as well, as it made the final four a couple of years ago when they were looking for an obscurity for the Swan. It lost out to Love's Sacrifice but director Justin Audibert clearly thought it was a shame for it not to reach an audience. On this evidence I would have to agree, it's got its problems, especially in the second half, but has a lot to recommend it as well.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Theatre review: While We're Here

Barney Norris is an up-and-coming playwright who's presumably got a big change of style in store - this time next year his Nightfall will be playing at the new 900-seat Bridge Theatre. For now though things remain super-intimate again as he opens another new space, the Bush's Studio which aims to recreate roughly the size of the original pub theatre. While We're Here takes place in a cosy living room (designed by James Perkins) in Havant, a town near Portsmouth which, if the play is anything to go by, seems more like the middle of nowhere. Carol (Tessa Peake-Jones) has lived there, and in the same house, almost her entire life. Eddie (Andrew French) is more of a drifter, literally so in recent years when he's fallen on hard times and been sleeping rough. The two had a brief relationship twenty years ago soon after Carol's divorce, and have now reconnected by chance when they bumped into each other in a park. Carol has invited him to stay at hers until he can get himself settled.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Theatre review: Late Company

The Shaun-Hastings are setting places for a dinner party with people they don't really know. Michael (Todd Boyce) is a conservative politician recently elected to the Canadian Parliament, Debora (Lucy Robinson) a "campaign wife" and one-time artist (a steel cock-and-balls she sculpted is the first thing the audience sees in Zahra Mansouri's design when coming into the Finborough.) They've looked into their guests and are a bit worried that while they themselves are clearly wealthy, Tamara (Lisa Stevenson) and Bill (Alex Lowe) might be the wrong kind of rich, and Debora thinks they're probably a bit vulgar. The reason for this awkward comedy of manners is a lot darker than the surface makes it look. Michael and Debora had a teenage son, Joel, who killed himself some months earlier. Bill and Tamara's son Curtis (David Leopold) was a ringleader among those who bullied him to his death.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Theatre review: City of Glass

It's a week of adaptations within adaptations - last night's Obsession was an English translation of a Dutch stage adaptation of a film adaptation of a novel, and tonight City of Glass is Duncan Macmillan's version not just of Paul Auster's novel, but also specifically of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel adaptation of the story. Which is itself full of retellings of itself, and who exactly is narrating it is very much up for discussion. To wit, the lead character of Daniel Quinn is played simultaneously by two actors: Chris New and Mark Edel-Hunt occasionally appear on stage together but mostly alternate scenes, swapping places during blackouts. In fact, given how low the lighting is, I imagine people sitting quite far from the stage would have taken a while to realise this was happening, as despite the two men not looking much alike, even from the third row of the stalls it sometimes took a moment to be sure which one was on stage.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Theatre review: Obsession

Toneelgroep Amsterdam's season at the Barbican continues with a new play, based on a film by Luchino Visconti - whose work Ivo van Hove frequently stages - and with a cast half made up of Dutch ensemble members, and half of British guest actors (although at times even the latter seem to have picked up the Dutch accent.) After filling it with furniture and audience members for Roman Tragedies, Jan Versweyveld uses the size of the Barbican stage to leave vast empty spaces for Obsession, which takes place in a bar - one that apparently does have some customers, we just don't get to see them. Instead Gino (Jude Law,) a drifter, wanders in playing the harmonica and looking for something to eat, which he may or may not be able to pay for. He's a mechanic and stays to do a few jobs around the place in exchange for his room and board, but the real reason he's sticking around is because he's fallen instantly in lust with the barmaid Hanna (Halina Reijn,) and the second her much older husband Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is gone they start an affair.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Dance review: Nuclear War

Unusually for a British playwright, Simon Stephens is a vocal fan of European directors' theatre, where the text is a starting point to be treated as faithfully or otherwise as the director decides. So it's not too big a stretch that he's also interested in his work being interpreted through the gift of dance, and the premiere production of Nuclear War is directed by Imogen Knight, who usually works as a movement director, with the instruction that she could use as little or as much of the scripted speech as she wants. In the event, though some of it is spoken by the actors on stage, much is pre-recorded as voiceover by Maureen Beattie, who plays a woman still in mourning for someone she lost seven years ago, but has finally decided to go out into the city again in search of someone - as the short piece goes on it seems increasingly that she's looking for a new man, maybe just to have sex with.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Non-review: The Philanthropist

If the odds of me coming back after the interval are anything to go by, West End comedy plays are in dire straits this year. I made an early escape from The Miser, and now another play with a Molière connection, Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, had me rushing for the exit as well. Cast entirely through watching Channel 4 catch-up, plus that episode of Doctor Who where Lily Cole played a fish, Simon Callow's production offers little justification for why it should be revived. In roles they're patently too young for, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal play stuffy university English lecturers who witness a (probably accidental) suicide in the opening scene. Perhaps out of empathy, the play also proceeds to die a death as Bird's Philip and his fiancée Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) host an evening of drinks for a few colleagues and a successful author.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Theatre review: Whisper House

The venue formerly known as the St James Theatre has been bought by Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD to stage new musicals and, presumably on the basis that it being hidden in a back street wasn't obstacle enough to audiences finding it, has been renamed The Other Palace. A nod, I guess, to it being between the Victoria Palace and Buckingham Palace, but with there actually being two Palace Theatres in London already, one of them down the road, that technically makes this The Other, Other, Other Palace. In any case, everyone seems to read it as The Other Place, which is yet another theatre entirely, so basically what I'm saying is good luck with the #brand recognition, guys. Anyway, my first trip there since the name change is to a musical from Spring Awakening and American Psycho songwriter Duncan Sheik, but Whisper House is a much less explosive affair than either of those two.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Theatre review: Guards at the Taj

The Bush has just reopened after a major rebuild of its new building, that comes with reserved seating and new separate entrances for the box office, auditorium and toilets, which should hopefully all add up to a less nightmarish time in the bar area. It looks nice enough, although let's hope Madani Younis doesn't have any ideas about it being the most beautiful theatre there ever was or ever will be - if Guards at the Taj is anything to go by I'd hate to think what he might do to the builders. Rajiv Joseph's play takes its theme from a popular myth about the building of the Taj Mahal: Over the 16 years of its construction it was hidden behind temporary walls, and only its architect and the men building it were allowed to see it before it was finished, on pain of death to anyone who snuck a look. Joseph sets his play on the night before the unveiling, with Taj Mahal out of bounds for a few more hours.