Monday, 21 May 2018

Theatre review: Describe the Night

Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj took its inspiration from a false, but widely believed, legend about the building of the Taj Mahal; for Describe the Night he mixes real historical figures and events with fiction of his own invention, in a play that looks at Fake News in a context that made an art form of it: Soviet Russia. His story ranges over 90 years and could be described as the journey taken by a diary, written by journalist and novelist Isaac Babel (Ben Caplan) in 1920. Following the Russian army to Poland, he was employed to write the official dispatches, but also kept this personal journal to record his reactions and descriptions of places and events. In 2010, a plane crash near Smolensk killed the Polish president and much of his cabinet on the way to a memorial service, inspiring conspiracy theories about the Russian government’s involvement. When Feliks (Joel MacCormack) finds the wreckage, a dying woman gives him the diary.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Theatre review: Red

It’s nine years since John Logan’s Red premiered at the Donald and Margot Warehouse, and while I would have happily seen it again at the time its hit transfer to New York meant it never had a further life in London. Michael Grandage has finally been able to rectify this with a revival at Wyndham’s, and has even managed to bring back his original star, Alfred Molina, to play the artist Mark Rothko. The play is the imagined story of the painting of The Seagram Murals, a sequence of red and black paintings originally commissioned to decorate the elite Four Seasons restaurant. It immediately sounds like an unlikely home for a collection of moody, ominous canvases, and Rothko did in the end withdraw from the commission. In a way Red is the story of how he comes to that decision, as he bats ideas back and forth with a fictional assistant, Ken, played by Startled Giraffe Alfred Enoch. The role was originally played by Eddie Redmayne, because Grandage is seemingly committed to only casting Red with actors who have red in their names.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Theatre review: Hamlet (Shakespeare's Globe)

After the “teaser” of the touring Twelfth Night and Shrew, it’s time for the main season as Michelle Terry takes over as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe. Not only has the venue gone back to having an actor in charge (the first one to hold the post will be returning later in the summer) but the idea of the productions being “actor-led” has been heavily promoted leading up to her first season; in fact the new Globe Ensemble’s first pair of productions were originally announced as being put together without a director, although Federay Holmes and Elle While have since been brought in to fulfil that role. This reliance on actor input is apparent, in both positive and negative ways, in the opening show of the Terry era, and she’s come straight in to take on a challenge, playing the title role in Hamlet*. The Prince of Denmark is in mourning two months after the sudden death of his father, but the royal court around him has already moved on.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production is previewing at the Globe prior to a tour.

After a pretty safe opener in Twelfth Night, the second of Brendan O’Hea’s Globe productions vying for votes on the tour is The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a play that seems ripe for exploration in a year when #MeToo is a major theme in theatre, but it’s also one that, precisely because of the modern context, needs a lot of work and a high concept to find its place on a 21st century stage. Can an eight-strong company who are also rehearsing two other plays at the same time bring that level of nuance? No. Lucentio (Luke Brady) arrives in Padua and instantly falls in love with Bianca (Sarah Finigan,) daughter of the wealthy Baptista (Cynthia Emeagi.) Baptista knows his youngest daughter has many suitors, and has used this to deal with a problem: His eldest, Katherina (Rhianna McGreevy) is so bad-tempered she’s widely considered to be cursed. Baptista has decreed that he’ll only give his blessing for Bianca to marry when a husband has also been found for Katherina.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Theatre review: Chess

Growing up in the 1980s I remember chess championships, particularly those that pitted an American grand master against a Soviet one, always seeming to be in the news, so at the time basing a blockbuster musical around a chess match didn't seem entirely like a terrible idea. But time can put perspective on a lot of things, and from a viewpoint not just of 2018 but pretty much every year since Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's Chess first took to the stage it's been obvious that it is, entirely, a terrible idea. Musically, the songwriting team behind ABBA provide some predictably strong numbers, but the story is so notoriously bad that it's been constantly rewritten in a desperate attempt to make it even borderline comprehensible. This is the third production I've seen, each using a slightly different book, and this one barely uses any book at all, but after thirty-odd years of rewriting at least one thing has succeeded: In terms of the basic story beats at least, it is now borderline comprehensible.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Theatre review: Nightfall

Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre launched with the announcement of its first three shows, designed to be a showcase of the three main seating configurations the auditorium could use. Of these the third, Barney Norris’ Nightfall, stood out as an unusual choice for a new, large-scale venue: He’s been building a name for himself Off-West End but it seems a big ask for Norris to fill a 900-seat theatre for a month, especially without a headline-grabbing cast. There’s also the fact that the playwright’s previous work has all been very intimate, and I wondered how he’d handle something more epic. As it turns out that’s not really what he’s aiming for anyway: Rae Smith’s set, putting the yard of a farmhouse on the thrust stage, could happily stage a naturalistic Uncle Vanya, but unlike Chekhov’s multiple story strands there’s only four characters to follow here.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Theatre review: Building the Wall

Robert Schenkkan’s dystopian Building the Wall has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been a hit in the USA, where it was one of the first plays to imagine the consequences of a Trump presidency. Set in a Texas jail cell in November 2019, Trump has been impeached, for reasons that may or may not turn out to be connected to the cell’s inhabitant: Rick (Trevor White) is awaiting sentencing for a crime that’s made him the most hated man in America, and following his lawyer’s advice he didn’t testify at his own trial, so his side of the story remains unheard. From the pile of letters asking for interviews, he’s picked out Gloria’s (Angela Griffin,) and we follow the uninterrupted 80 minutes the historian has been granted to interview him. The actual nature of his crime is the play’s big reveal so it’ll be a while before we can get to that; first we have some background to the characters, particularly Rick himself.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Theatre review: Twelfth Night
(Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production is previewing at the Globe prior to a tour.

After a turbulent couple of years for the venue, Michelle Terry has now officially taken over as Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe, and next week I'll be making my first trip to her summer season proper. But first, as well as any innovations of her own she might have planned, there were a couple of Globe favourites that had fallen by the wayside during the Emma Rice years that I'd hoped to see return; I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that Globe To Globe will be back in future years but in the meantime the "tiny" touring shows - small casts of actor-musicians frantically doubling all the roles in some of Shakespeare's best-known plays - are back, but with a twist that's Terry's own: Brendan O'Hea directs a cast of eight in three plays; once the company hits the road they won't know which play they're going to perform until the last minute, leaving it to an audience vote to decide the night's entertainment.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Theatre review: Mayfly

If plays about forgotten corners of the countryside have been the low-key growing trend of the last couple of years, then the Orange Tree has been the theatre quietly putting itself at the forefront of it; and even if it's not quite another Jess and Joe Forever, Joe White's Mayfly is the second impressive playwrighting debut of the week (and the second one touching on grief, as it happens.) Cat's (Niky Wardley) horoscope says today is the day a special person will appear out of the blue, and the play's conceit is that it's right: Within a couple of hours Harry (Irfan Shamji) has met all three members of her family, starting when he pulls her husband Ben (Simon Scardifield) out of a river. Ben was trying to down himself because today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of his son.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Theatre review: Mood Music

It takes a while for plays to get commissioned, written and programmed, so we haven’t seen a major theatre touch directly on the Kevin Spacey story yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Given the hamfisted way it dealt with the aftermath, is it particularly likely that theatre will be the Old Vic itself? In the meantime, Spacey’s successor Matthew Warchus has said there is a certain element of acknowledging the subject in his programming Mood Music, even if Joe Penhall’s new play touches more on the wider subject of powerful men’s treatment of younger women, than the specific one of a powerful man’s treatment of younger men. In any case even that’s arguably not what Mood Music’s really about: Up-and-coming singer Cat (Seána Kerslake) is thrilled to find out that industry legend Bernard (Ben Chaplin) will be producing her first album. He was, in fact, just looking for a female singer to take lead vocals on an album he’d written, but agrees to work on her songs instead.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Theatre review: The Prudes

The characters in writer-director Anthony Neilson’s The Prudes know they’re in a play called The Prudes, and they resent the implication somewhat – although Jess (Sophie Russell) thinks it might be fair in the sense that she doesn’t like the idea of dogging (she worries about the dogs being left alone while all the sex is going on and anyway, she doesn’t have a car.) But it’s true that she and her partner of nine years, James (Jonjo O’Neill,) haven’t had sex in 14 months, and they’re here to do something about it. Specifically, they’re here in Fly Davis’ chintzy pink boudoir set to have sex in front of a live audience. But first they need to introduce themselves and give some background to their relationship and its recent intimacy issues – basically, they need to keep talking about anything that’ll put off doing the act itself.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Theatre review: Nine Night

Actor Natasha Gordon’s accomplished first play Nine Night takes its name from a Jamaican funeral custom: The wake takes place over nine nights, with a series of boisterous parties in honour of the deceased; on the final night their spirit is encouraged to move on. In another case of a play arriving at a time that makes it accidentally topical, we’re in the house of a woman from the Windrush generation, Gloria, who’s just died of cancer. Nine Night is an ensemble piece but at the heart of it is Gloria’s younger daughter Lorraine (Franc Ashman,) who took voluntary redundancy to care for her mother during her final months, and has now been left in charge of the funeral arrangements, and of keeping up with the food and drink demands of a regular stream of guests. We only hear the parties in the background; the action takes place in the kitchen, still done up in 1970s style (set design by Rajha Shakiry.)

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Theatre review: Masterpieces

Anger can be a spur to some powerful writing, but while anger over the relationship between pornography and misogyny is more than justifiable, I’ve yet to see it be the basis of a coherent piece of theatre. The Finborough proves that #MeToo isn’t the first time theatre has fought back against the oppression of women by dusting off Sarah Daniels’ 1983 play Masterpieces, which tries to trace a line from misogynistic jokes all the way to the murder of women. It starts promisingly enough with the standard dinner party from hell: Olivia Darnley and Edward Killingback (Yeah!) Them Motherfuckers Don’t Know How To Act (Yeah!) play Rowena and Trevor, whose dinner with friends and family degenerates into a series of sexist jokes. This scene actually contains some really good moments about the way men silence women, that could have come straight out of the Q&A scene in The Writer – like Yvonne (Tessie Orange-Turner) being asked why she hasn’t said much, and having Trevor jump in to answer for her that she hasn’t been able to get a word in edgeways.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Theatre review: The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, or, The Beau Defeated

Restoration comedy has been having a moment lately, and after the efforts of Southwark Playhouse and the Donmar Warehouse comes the RSC to provide the element that's been missing so far: A production that actually works as a comedy. Mary Pix's The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, more commonly known as The Beau Defeated, has as daft and convoluted a plot as any in the genre but crucially, in Jo Davies' production at least, it's possible to actually follow. There's a few different plot strands, all revolving around people trying to find a partner and/or a fortune, but the two main ones follow two women looking for husbands based on very different criteria. Sophie Stanton plays the titular Mrs Rich, widow of a banker and, in a bit of character naming that's painfully on-the-nose even by Restoration comedy standards, she's very rich. But in 1700 as in 2018 banking isn't the most beloved of professions, so the way she got her money means the society ladies she wants to mingle with look down on her.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Theatre review: Absolute Hell

It takes a certain amount of confidence to call a play Absolute Hell, given the likelihood it’ll end up doing the reviewers’ job for them; of course Rodney Ackland’s 1945 play, not produced until 1952, was originally called The Pink Room, which is only going to result in people like me saying something vague and misinformed about vaginas, so maybe titles were just never his forte. Set shortly after VE Day and either side of the General Election that would put Labour in power, Absolute Hell takes place in the Vie En Rose Club, a private members’ bar run, nominally – her staff regularly grumble about doing all of the work for none of the credit – by Kate Fleetwood’s Christine. A seemingly gregarious hostess with a penchant for men in uniform who tends to get as drunk as any of her customers, she really cuts a painfully lonely figure who needs the club and its clientele to keep her from despair.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Theatre review: The Writer

“I’m not sure what that was but I liked it.” That seemed to be the general impression I got from people on Twitter who’d been to see Ella Hickson’s The Writer in previews, and it’s a fair response to a metatextual headfuck of a play that challenges audiences on at least two levels: First by confronting the ongoing discussion around the status of women in the world, and as creatives in theatre in particular, and then by playing with format – but then this structural experiment also folds back into the gender discussion, providing a further looping nature to the way the play works. It plays out in five distinct acts, starting with a confrontation: A young woman (Lara Rossi) goes back into the theatre after a show to collect the bag she’s forgotten, and bumps into the play’s director (Samuel West,) who asks her what she thought.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Theatre review: The Way of the World

A delayed trip to the Donald and Margot Warehouse, where James Macdonald's production of The Way of the World has been sadly overshadowed by the reason the performance I was originally due to see was cancelled: Actor Alex Beckett's unexpected death. Performances of William Congreve's Restoration comedy have now resumed with Robin Pearce replacing Beckett as Waitwell, and the rest of the run being dedicated to the late actor's memory. Unfortunately it proves a pretty poor memorial, as Macdonald has produced an interminable, impenetrable and woefully unfunny evening whose cast try hard to inject some energy into it but only succeed in small doses. I don't think I've seen Congreve's play before but I suspect it has to take a lot of the blame itself; the lengthy first scene in which Mirabel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) and Fainall (Tom Mison) exchange exposition about numerous similarly-named characters we haven't met yet sets a lugubrious tone the rest of the play struggles to get out of, and left me none the wiser about who anyone was by the time they turned up.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Theatre review: TINA

Weeder needer nudder hero!

When I was growing up I had Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album on cassette, and there was a period when I needed to listen to it every night to get to sleep, so there are memories associated with many of her songs for me; still, making them the subject of a jukebox musical didn’t automatically appeal. But TINA has a book by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Pris) and, having waited a long time to see another play by the author of The Mountaintop, it seemed silly to miss this chance when it presented itself. And while the script isn’t going to be either Hall’s finest hour or the standout part of the evening, the show’s biographical nature means it has to have a darker edge that puts it miles away from director Phyllida Lloyd’s most famous production, Mamma Mia. It undercuts any expectations of being a singalong from the start – the opening notes of “The Best” play, but within a couple of minutes we have the first instance of violence against women.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Theatre review: The Phlebotomist

Ella Road’s imperfect but accomplished debut The Phlebotomist opens with a real piece of news footage, as a doctor is interviewed about genomics, the science of using DNA testing to predict someone’s future health; enthusiastically, she tells us how hospitals keeping records of everyone’s projected physical and mental health would be a boon to the medical profession and help treat problems before they even occur. Over the course of the next two hours we get more footage appearing on the screens with every scene change, this time scripted clips that build the dystopian future Road has created with this technology as its basis: Blood tests aren’t, at first, compulsory, but they become common and increasingly expected. The complex data collected is simplified to a score out of ten, and soon everything from job applications to dating profiles revolves around this, with anyone ranked as “sub” unlikely to get a mortgage, a decent job or a partner who isn’t as predisposed to an early death as they are.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Theatre review: Instructions for Correct Assembly

Thomas Eccleshare isn’t a playwright afraid of a high concept, or of asking his creatives for the impossible, whether it’s nature fighting back against urbanisation in a very literal way, or a Mediaeval poem turned into a live comic book. Instructions for Correct Assembly, his first play for the Royal Court’s main stage, is no different, taking the idea of the IKEA flat-pack and wondering what we could be building out of it next. Harry (Mark Bonnar) and Max’s (Jane Horrocks) son Nick (Brian Vernel) died some months ago after years of drug addiction. But the couple have found a project to help them move on with their lives, and are excited to assemble their new son Jån (also Vernel,) who’s been ordered from a generic model (“white and polite”) but can be programmed to suit their own specifications. Through a series of comic scenes they iron out the imperfections, but as time goes on they feel the need to programme some grey areas back in.