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.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Theatre review: Périclès, Prince de Tyr (Cheek by Jowl)

Co-written with a pimp he met down the pub, and only surviving in a reconstructed version from text fragments, Pericles is not exactly one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, and in fact after tonight's performance I've now seen it as many times translated into other languages as I have in the original. The play's hero begins his journey by attempting to get a royal bride by answering a riddle; when the solution gives up a terrible secret he flees, realising that what he's learnt has put his life n danger. After a couple of shipwrecks he ends up finding then losing first a new bride and then a daughter, being betrayed by many of those he considers friends, and finding that the dead have risen. In one of my favourite endearingly batshit insane scenes in all of Shakespeare, having dug themselves into a plot hole he and Wilkins resolve it by having some pirates turn up out of nowhere to abduct the leading lady.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Theatre review: Strictly Ballroom

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Strictly Ballroom has its press night on the 24th of April.

I know it officially makes me a Bad Gay, but I haven’t seen Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom. This shouldn’t matter, of course, in seeing Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s stage adaptation, and there’s certainly nothing so complex about the story that you’d need to already know it going in. Still, I can’t help but feel that not already being a fan of the 1992 film – as most of tonight’s packed preview audience clearly were – meant something about Drew McOnie’s production was definitely lost on me. Scott Hastings (Jonny Labey) is an amateur ballroom dancer competing in the Australian Federation, which insists that all entrants dance only the strictly prescribed steps; this is mainly because Federation president Barry Fife (Gerard Horan) has a lucrative side-line selling instructional videos that teach the set routines. Scott isn’t satisfied with only dancing someone else’s steps though.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Theatre review: Macbeth (RSC / RST & Barbican)

Christopher Eccleston has spent so much time recently vocally trying to disassociate himself from Doctor Who that it's hard to remember he's ever done anything else. His latest role sees him return to the stage, for the first time at the RSC, to play the title role in Macbeth. As so often happens with Shakespeare plays (especially those on the syllabus) multiple productions have arrived at the same time, and this one coincides with the critically-panned version at the National. Well, Polly Findlay's production is infinitely more watchable than Rufus Norris', but in some ways is just as problematic. Right from the opening, Findlay and designer Fly Davis show they're not short of interesting ideas, as the audience enters to find King Duncan (David Acton) asleep in his bed, a trio of little girls looking on. These are the witches whose prophecies will turn the tide of the story when Macbeth and Banquo (Raphael Sowole) encounter them soon after a battle.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Theatre review: Pressure

The British obsession with the weather is a long-standing joke that gets referenced a couple of times in David Haig’s play Pressure; attempting to make a thriller out of the weather forecast – and succeeding – must be a new a twist though. Early June 1944 in a secret military base is a good setting to pull it off though: The Allied forces have been planning D-Day for 18 months, and it absolutely has to take place on Monday the 5th of June. To the best of their knowledge they’ve managed to keep the time and location of the landings a secret, but the more time passes the harder it becomes to contain leaks, and everything is set to go on General Eisenhower’s (Malcolm Sinclair) command. Everything except the weather, the one thing they can’t control, and after several weeks of summer they’re hopeful that the Channel will still be clear by Monday. But they need to get the approval of both American and British meteorologists, and the two don’t agree.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Theatre review: The Country Wife

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The production invites the official critics in tomorrow.

A man enthusiastically spreading rumours of his own impotence is the sort of thing that makes perfect sense in a Restoration comedy, and it’s the premise of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Harry Horner (Eddie Eyre) has a reputation around London for stealing other men’s wives, to the point that no woman will come near him. After a visit to France he returns a changed man, having contracted one STD too many and been castrated by a French doctor. It is, of course, a ruse; married men will enjoy patronising the eunuch and feel safe leaving their wives with him, and he can seduce them at his leisure. While he’s spending time under the table with Lady Fidget (Sarah Lam,) he’s also acquired a new admirer: Pinchwife (Richard Clews) has recently returned from the countryside, where he married the seemingly unsophisticated Margery (Nancy Sullivan.)

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Theatre review: The Inheritance

While the National's production of Angels in America has been sent back home to New York, London now gets in return a play that draws inevitable comparisons to it: Matthew Lopez is in effect following the next generation of New York gay men, in an epic play that also pushes at the seven-hour mark and is split into two parts. But The Inheritance has an unexpected way of avoiding the comparison with Tony Kushner's plays, as it also has a close connection to another famous work, being a surprisingly faithful adaptation of E.M. Forster's Howards End. Forster himself appears in the play, the story's framing device seeing his ghost (Paul Hilton) lead a creative writing class of young gay men looking for a way to tell their own stories, and settling on his novel as the framework. Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) is a gay man in his mid-thirties who befriends the older Walter (Hilton,) long-term partner to a billionaire property developer.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Theatre review: Vincent River

A production of Vincent River eight years ago was one of the plays that established Philip Ridley as one of my absolute favourite playwrights, so a revival at the Park Theatre's studio space was something to get excited about. First produced in 2001 but with elements that are sadly still relevant with the rise in homophobic hate crime since the Brexit vote, the titular Vincent is what the play's characters have in common, but we never see him because he died 18 weeks earlier, beaten to death in a Shoreditch cottage. His mother Anita (Louise Jameson,) who claims never to have suspected her son's sexuality, has just moved to Dagenham to get away from the scene of the crime and the backlash from her neighbours, but she's not got away from everyone who's interested in her story - a young man has been stalking her, not particularly subtly so she's well aware he's there.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Theatre review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

Manuel Puig's novel Kiss of the Spider Woman seems to be of endless fascination to theatremakers - I saw a stage version at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, and there also exists a notoriously Marmite Kander and Ebb musical on the subject. But for the Menier Chocolate Factory production, Laurie Sansom uses another new adaptation, by Motorcycle Diaries screenwriter José Rivera and American playwright Allan Baker. The setting is a jail cell in 1970s Argentina, a time when the junta regularly imprisoned and tortured political dissidents like Valentin (Declan Bennett.) He shares this space with Molina (Samuel Barnett,) a gay window dresser convincted of gross indecency. The two have little in common, but bond when Molina starts to tell his cellmate bedtime stories to help him sleep.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Theatre review: Caroline, or Change

Daniel Evans' first season in charge of Chichester has already suggested he'll be following his predecessor in transferring a lot of shows to the West End: Quiz and King Lear are on their way, and Michael Longhurst's production of Caroline, or Change will follow them in the autumn, but first it has a sold-out run at Hampstead. Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical, loosely inspired by Kushner's childhood and his family's maid, takes place in 1963 Louisiana, where Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D. Clarke) spends her days doing laundry in the sweltering basement of the Gellman family. Unlike most of the local maids, she wears her exhaustion and anger at hard work for little pay openly, which has got her a reputation as being particularly unfriendly and unlikeable. But the Gellmans' young son Noah (Aaron Gelkoff, alternating with Charlie Gallacher,) adores her, especially since his mother's death from cancer.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Theatre review: Humble Boy

I didn't catch Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy when it premiered at the National in 2001, but I've heard it mentioned a lot since as one of the best-loved new plays of the time. Paul Miller now tests how well it's aged with a revival of this gentle tragicomedy with overt Hamlet allusions. Designer Simon Daw has gone all-out in transforming the Orange Tree's in-the-round stage into the garden of Flora Humble's (Belinda Lang) Cotswolds home. Her husband has just died and her son Felix (Jonathan Broadbent) has returned after a long absence to attend the funeral, only to disappear when he was meant to be giving the eulogy. Felix is a theoretical astrophysicist who's been trying to find a unifying theory of the cosmos. His attempts to examine his inner life have been as unsuccessful as those to examine black holes, and he arrives back at the family home still in a suicidal mood.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Theatre review: Macbeth (National Theatre & tour)

Remember when Anne-Marie Duff was best known as Fiona from Shameless, rather than as a harbinger of dodgy plays? Me neither.

Duff and Rory Kinnear were paired up as the Macbeths in a scene for the RSC’s 2016 Shakespeare celebration special, but it’s the National that’s brought them together again for a full production. Much has been made of the fact that this Macbeth is Rufus Norris’ first time directing Shakespeare in 25 years, and only his second ever, an admission that’s inevitably come back to haunt a production whose negative critical reaction has been hard to miss, even if you try to avoid reviews and spoilers. Coming in with low expectations can sometimes mean you’re pleasantly surprised, and I guess at least we can say that Duff hasn’t landed herself in something quite as unwatchable as Common again (Ian and I both actually came back after the interval this time.) Norris has moved the play’s setting from mediaeval Scotland to a post-apocalyptic near future where supplies are scarce and gangs in makeshift armour fight over what’s left.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Theatre review: Misty

The only black man on the night bus - describing himself as the virus among blood cells - gets into a quick scuffle with a drunk, and finds the situation escalating until he's on the front of the local papers, being sought as Public Enemy Number One. Arinzé "chest day is his favourite day" Kene's Misty is storytelling theatre crossed with performance art and music gig, but it's also a postmodern deconstruction of itself: Backed by two musicians, Kene performs his own play, following his central character on a journey around a London he's starting not to recognise, written in a mix of poetry, rap and song. It's a familiar story of black Londoners facing discrimination and fighting against the disadvantages they grew up with, and the question is, is it too familiar? Kene bursts the bubble of the atmosphere he's created, stepping back from performer to writer and questioning why he's telling this particular story.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Theatre review: The Great Wave

A commonplace scene of teenage sisters squabbling quickly turns into a thriller when Hanako (Kirsty Rider) is dared to go for a late-night walk on the beach in the middle of a storm and disappears. She's assumed to have been washed away by a wave but her sister Reiko (Kae Alexander) insists she saw three men take her away. The investigation is fruitless and eventually abandoned, but a few years later the girls' friend Tetsuo (Leo Wan,) trying to clear his own name of suspicion in her disappearance, uncovers a wild conspiracy theory that might just hold the answer: Hanako's disappearance in 1979 might have been the first in a series of abductions of young Japanese men and women by North Korean forces. Francis Turnly's The Great Wave takes us from 1979 to 2003 in Japan and North Korea, which is indeed where Hanako is.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi won't let any man decide who she can or can't marry; as played by Joan Iyiola at the RSC, this seems to include her prospective husband, who doesn't entirely get a say in her decision to pursue their dangerous love affair. In Maria Aberg's interpretation of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi it's this strong will and independence, rather than the social inequality of the match, that is her downfall. The widowed Duchess' brothers, the unhinged Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and lecherous Cardinal (Chris New) advise her against remarrying, largely because they think if she dies without heirs they might inherit her wealth. The Duchess, though, has other ideas, but knowing a marriage between herself and her steward Antonio (Paul Woodson) will cause a scandal she marries him in secret.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Re-review: Hamlet (RSC tour)

Hamlet is a play so popular and frequently produced that I've seen it more times than any other, so it's not often I feel the need to revisit a particular production. Simon Godwin's 2016 Stratford version was one I did want to see again, and I was far from the only person to be disappointed and annoyed when it was the only show in that RSC season not to transfer to London. The reason given was that the cast was unavailable, but as many of them were in other shows in the season, including Paapa Essiedu in the lead, there would probably only have been the need for a handful of roles to be recast. Well that omission has finally been rectified, as Essiedu returns to lead a tour of this relocation of mediaeval Denmark to modern Africa, with some of the original cast also joining him; more recastings have had to be made than would probably be the case if it had transferred straight away, but it's not in the least to the detriment of the production.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Theatre review: Summer and Smoke

I’ve only seen one show directed by Rebecca Frecknall before, a production of the obscure Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke at Southwark Playhouse in 2012. Well either Frecknall herself or Rupert Goold must have thought she had unfinished business with it, as she now makes her Almeida debut with… a production of the obscure Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke. In a small Mississippi town early in the 20th century, Alma Winemiller (Future Dame Patsy Ferran) is the local minister’s daughter, timid, bookish and prone to panic attacks, with a slightly affected accent – which she puts down to her father having spent time in England, but most of the town sees as further evidence that she’s pretentious. She’s been quietly besotted with her neighbour, the doctor’s son John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) since high school and, after some time away studying medicine, John has returned for the summer.