Friday, 16 February 2018

Theatre review: John

Annie Baker's playwrighting style can be at times understated to the point of eccentricity, but 2016's production of The Flick obviously found an audience at the National as her latest, John - even the title now understated and cryptic - also comes to the Dorfman, and to me at least feels like something a bit more special even than the lauded last play. Elias (Tom Mothersdale) was an American Civil War geek as a child, so when a road trip home after Thanksgiving takes them near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he persuades his girlfriend Jenny (Anneika Rose) that they should stop off there for a couple of days so he can visit the historic battlefields. Already much less enthusiastic about trekking through freezing cornfields than her boyfriend is, when Jenny gets a particularly painful period she ends up letting him go out alone, staying behind at the bed and breakfast with its colourful owner.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Theatre review: The York Realist

Josie Rourke kicks off her final full year in charge of the Donald and Margot Warehouse with a revival of Peter Gill’s The York Realist, a play I’ve seen before and which, especially in Robert Hastie’s quality-cast production, feels like watching a quietly revolutionary piece of gay theatre, largely because it isn’t, at heart, a “gay play.” It’s sometime in the 1960s and George (Ben Batt) is a farmer living a long bus ride away from York, where he’s been cast in a community production of the York Mystery Plays. He doesn’t have a phone so, when he misses a few rehearsals in a row, assistant director John (Jonathan Bailey) travels up to his house in person to find out why. He does manage to convince George to stay in the production, and his belief in his acting talent seems to be genuine, but he’s got another motive for coming all that way and soon the pair’s obvious attraction sees them disappear into George’s bedroom while his mother sleeps.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Theatre review: The Captive Queen

If David Lan leaving the Young Vic has been compared to the ravens leaving the Tower, then what do we call Barrie Rutter stepping down as Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, the company he founded a quarter of a century ago? The 71-year-old clearly has no plans to retire completely, as he'll be part of Michelle Terry's upcoming first season at the Globe, and before that his final production for Northern Broadsides is also the final show in Terry's predecessor's winter season. John Dryden's tragicomedy Aureng-zebe is named after its painfully noble and loyal male lead, but Rutter's production renames it The Captive Queen, after the woman whose beauty and charm captivates a whole court. Rutter himself plays the ageing Emperor, false reports of whose death have kicked off a civil war between his four sons over who gets to succeed him.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Theatre review: Black Mountain

The two women in Paines Plough's three-strong rep cast dominated Out of Love, now Hasan Dixon gets to take centre stage in Brad Birch's Black Mountain. He plays Paul, who 's just arrived at a remote holiday home with Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt.) The two are staying in separate bedrooms, an early indication that this isn't a straightforward holiday; they are, or at least were a couple, but he's hurt her and this is a last-ditch attempt to take some time together and talk over whether they have a future. He starts with at the very least the appearance of calm and optimism, she's spiky and curt with him but quickly starts to relax even as he goes the other way, becoming anxious and jumpy. This is because he's hiding the fact that Helen (Sally Messham) had stalked the pair to the side of a mountain.

Theatre review: Out of Love

Paines Plough seem to have found a regular London home for their Roundabout shows at the Orange Tree, Richmond 's permanently in-the-round theatre meaning they don't even have to find somewhere to set up their portable stage. As the company often does, they're currently touring three new short plays in rep with the same cast and creative team, and as usual this includes one kids' show I'm skipping, leaving me with a double bill to catch up on. First up is Elinor Cook's equal parts blunt and romantic look at a lifelong female friendship, Out of Love. We first meet Lorna (Sally Messham) and Grace (Katie Elin-Salt) as children, but after that their story jumps backwards and forwards in time to gradually build a picture of a tempestuous relationship that sometimes seems to have turned into hate, but in reality will always come back to the genuine love they feel for each other.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Theatre review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

Long night's journey into tomorrow morning, more like.

Seriously, though, Richard Eyre's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night originated at the Bristol Old Vic a couple of years ago, so the producers should have been well aware it comes in at three-and-a-half hours, and a 7pm start might have been kinder to audiences on a worknight. In any case, it arrives at Wyndham's with its original cast as the elder Tyrones - Lesley Manville, who's currently nominated for an Oscar, and Jeremy Irons, whose name is an anagram of "Jeremy's Iron." New to the cast are Rory Keenan and Matthew Beard as the sons in a family whose lives have been largely shaped by the mother's addiction. Cast against type, Irons plays James Tyrone, a famous actor with two adult sons he doesn't particularly fancy, who tours America with his one big hit play most of the year, but spends the quiet months with his family in their Connecticut summer house.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Theatre review: Gundog

Simon Longman’s pastoral nightmare Gundog is the final Upstairs show in the current Royal Court season (surely a new announcement is overdue?) and once again sees Vicky Featherstone channel something of the spirit of Edward Bond in this space: After the dead baby play we now get something that, though in some ways effective, in others comes perilously close to misery porn. Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) and Anna (Rochenda Sandall) are sisters living on desolate land in the middle of nowhere. They come from a family of sheep-farmers, but after the deaths of their parents, and an infection that took out most of their flock, they have nothing left. Not knowing any other way of life they now steal a few pregnant ewes from other flocks they hope nobody will miss, and just about subsist on the money they get from slaughtering and selling the lambs.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Theatre review: Dry Powder

With another financial crash threatening, a play about the people who play Monopoly with people’s livelihoods would seem a well-timed production for Hampstead Theatre. So it’s a shame Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder turns out to have very little to say about them, or much else for that matter. Rick (Aidan McArdle) runs his own private equity firm with his partners and trusted lieutenants Seth (Tom Riley) and Jenny (Hayley Atwell,) who offer contrasting ways of dealing: Jenny focuses on the numbers and is ruthless in pursuit of profit, while Seth has a more creative outlook and worries about the way the company’s public image affects their ability to do business. It’s this latter approach that Rick ignored when he acquired and liquidated a supermarket chain, laying off hundreds of staff on the same day that he threw himself an overblown engagement party.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Theatre review: The Divide

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: A combination of major changes since the play was premiered last year, and this London run being very short, means The Divide is in the unusual situation of its entire Old Vic run being technically classed as previews.

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is certainly ambitious, something that's given it a chequered history at the Old Vic even before it arrived there: The Divide premiered at last year's Edinburgh Festival as a two-part event along the lines of Angels in America or Harry Potter, and went on sale in London as two parts as well. But the unimpressed reception it received in August meant that, in the months before it resurfaced, Annabel Bolton's production underwent major changes, notably cutting two of its six hours, now fitting into one (very long) performance. One of Ayckbourn's occasional moves away from comedies of manners towards science fiction, the play has the feel of a dystopian YA novel, albeit one very low on action. The Divide takes place at some point in the future, the world having undergone an apocalyptic event that's reset the calendars - we're now over a hundred years AP, or "After Plague."

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)

Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre is intended to predominantly showcase new writing, but in only his second production there Hytner can’t resist going back to Shakespeare. This is in part because the opening season is also meant to show off the flexibility of the auditorium, and Julius Caesar is a play that lends itself to promenade staging, or in this case in-the-round staging with a section of the audience in promenade (of sorts.) Making the audience part of the action fills in the play’s reliance on crowds – whether as baying mobs, horrified onlookers, armies or, most crucially, the general populace of Rome in whose name the central characters act. Hytner’s production is modern dress, and David Calder’s Julius Caesar certainly has a visual nod to one current political figure as he shuffles onto the stage wearing a red baseball cap and revelling in the attention as much as anything.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Radio review: The Effect

Remember those old BBC sound effect albums? I don't recall there being a "hand job" effect on them but I guess Auntie really does have something for every occasion.

Although I listen to a fair bit of half-hour radio comedy I don't often get round to any full-length drama, but Lucy Prebble's 2012 play The Effect was one of my top shows of that year, and one that I still remember vividly; add a top voice cast for Abigail le Fleming's Radio 3 production and I couldn't resist revisiting it. Lorna (Christine Entwisle) is the doctor in charge of the intensive medical trial of a new antidepressant; she's suffered from depression herself, and is skeptical about the use of drugs to treat it, so she's concerned about the reaction two of the test subjects are having: Connie (Pirate Jessie Buckley) and Tristan (Damien Molony) appear to have fallen very quickly in love with each other. If the development is worrying for the medical team, it's even more so for the pair themselves, their emotions - particularly Connie's - bouncing between elation at a new love, and the horror that one of the strongest things they've ever felt might just be a side-effect.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Theatre review: The Brothers Size

After twenty or so years running the Young Vic it’s understandable if David Lan wants to bring back a past hit in his final season; and unsurprising if that’s The Brothers Size, given playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s high profile following Moonlight’s win (and the headline-grabbing mix-up) at last year’s Oscars. This is the play that first made McCraney’s name in the UK and, written around the same as the unperformed play that inspired Moonlight, it’s different but recognisably covers some of the same ground. Oshoosi Size (Jonathan Ajayi) has recently been released from prison and, while on parole, is living with his older brother Ogun (Sope Dirisu,) a mechanic who’s been making a success of his own garage while Oshoosi’s been away. Oshoosi is enjoying his freedom and wants his own car so he can test its limits, but Ogun insists he get a job and stick strictly to the terms of his probation.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Theatre review: Imperium Part II: Dictator

The phrase "all political careers end in failure" wasn't coined until the twentieth century (by Enoch Powell of all people,) so Cicero wouldn't have been able to pay it any attention when, in the events at the close of Conspirator, he found himself far from the political heights he'd once scaled. A shame for him, as he might have been able to accept that failure as the end of his career, rather than setting himself up for a much greater fall in the second part of Mike Poulton's Imperium, based on a trilogy of historical novels by Robert Harris. Dictator opens with Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey) enjoying that formal title of dictator, the civil wars of the first play having left the Roman Republic in chaos, and willing to let one strong hand rule it while it tries to reestablish its democracy. Of course, now that he's sole ruler Caesar is unlikely to give up his power in a hurry, and Cicero (Richard McCabe) is brought out of retirement to advise his opponents.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Theatre review: Lady Windermere's Fan

Dominic Dromgoole passes the directing reins over to Kathy Burke for the second major production in his Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville: Lady Windermere’s Fan slightly predates A Woman of No Importance but, for my money, feels the more rounded and accomplished play; and while it also has a strong cast, it doesn’t depend on them as strongly to do a salvage job as the first in the season depended on Eve Best. Lady Margaret Windermere (Grace Molony) has been married for two years, and has failed to pick up on the hints everyone’s dropping that her marriage is the subject of much gossip. It’s only when the Duchess of Berwick (Jennifer Saunders) outright tells her that she learns her husband Arthur (Joshua James) has in recent months started to pay regular visits to a mysterious woman; a look through his bank book reveals he’s also been paying her large sums of money.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Theatre review: Yous Two

Chelsea Walker directs Georgia Christou’s debut play Downstairs at Hampstead Theatre, a short and entertaining look at co-dependency and the fear of hereditary mental illness. Yous Two are 15-year-old Billie (Shannon Tarbet,) and her father Jonny (Joseph Thompson,) who’ve been pretty much the only family each other has since Billie’s mother committed suicide, so long ago her daughter was too young to really remember her. Jonny struggles to work thanks to a shoulder injury from his last job, and makes ends meet as a ticket tout until the expected compensation payout arrives. Billie expects a more academic future – she’s a maths and science geek at school, and though she’s not as good at the humanities her more artistically-inclined best friend Rachel (Leah Harvey) helps her out with her English. The play takes place entirely in the bathroom (designed by Rosanna Vize) where Billie was born.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Theatre review: Rita, Sue and Bob Too

The Royal Court run of Rita, Sue and Bob Too has turned out to be Schrödinger’s Play – for a while it was simultaneously happening and not happening. Vicky Featherstone cancelled the London performances when the subject matter seemed a bit too close both to the revelations of sexual harassment in the theatre industry in general, and by the production’s original co-director Max Stafford-Clark in particular. She was persuaded to change her mind on the basis that the play could help illuminate the issue, as well as the irony that it was a female playwright – Andrea Dunbar wrote the play when she was 19 – who wouldn’t be heard. So Out of Joint’s touring production, now directed solely by Kate Wasserberg, gets to bring 1982 Bradford to 2018 London for three weeks and show 15-year-olds Rita (Taj Atwal) and Sue (Gemma Dobson) spend their Friday night babysitting for a local couple.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Theatre review: The Here and This and Now

Paired up with The War Has Not Yet Started in Theatre Royal Plymouth's rep season at Southwark Playhouse, Glenn Waldron's The Here and This and Now takes a look at pharmaceutical companies on an intimate scale and, eventually, a global one. Niall (Simon Darwen) leads a team of pharmaceutical reps on a team-building away-day. Alongside games where they recite their sales mantra of "Captivate! Associate! Detonate! Kill!" the central point is for them all to rehearse Niall's trademark pitch to receptionists, a cheesy story about his sick son designed to create empathy and get them five minutes with a senior consultant to sell discount liver-spot cream. Gemma (Tala Gouveia) is new to the team and enthusiastically delivers her own version of the pitch, but the other two members have been working for the company much longer and have a much more cynical outlook on what they're doing.

Theatre review: The War Has Not Yet Started

Southwark Playhouse's Little space kicks off the year with a rep season transferring from Plymouth. The banner name it's been given is "Strange Tales From The West Country," something certainly borne out by The War Has Not Yet Started - the strangeness at least, the country it comes from is actually Russia. Mikhail Durnenkov's play, translated here by Noah Birksted-Breen, is a darkly surreal sketch show in which Hannah Britland, Sarah Hadland and Mark Quartley run through a series of scenes of very modern paranoia and isolation. Gordon Anderson's production matter-of-factly casts the roles age- and gender-blind, so in a couple of permutations Quartley is a mother, Britland a father and Hadland their son. In the same costumes throughout they bring a naturalistic performance style to scenes that are anything but.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Theatre review: All's Well That Ends Well (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Caroline Byrne would appear to be the director the Globe turns to when they've got a problem play that needs solving; she previously had to deal with the alleged comedy of The Taming of the Shrew, and now comes indooors to the Swanamaker for a play that belies its title of All's Well That Ends Well. Byrne's production includes the unusual credit of Ben Ormerod as "candle consultant," and perhaps the consultation was over how few candles they could get away with in the playhouse - only two of the chandeliers get lit, and then only for a single scene, with a few small candelabras and handheld candles doing all the work of lighting the action. Fortunately things aren't so murky that it becomes difficult to see what's going on, but they are murky enough to take us into the slightly nightmarish world the play's two leads find themselves in.

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.