Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

2015 feels like a strange old year to try and look back on; or, at any rate, to know where to start. Its theatre, in London at least, hasn't been dominated by one or two major themes or memes. It hasn't even been quite as full of disrobing men as we've become accustomed to, and if you've read this unholy excuse for a blog before you'll know that really leaves me up the creek. I guess I'll just have to look at how good or bad the shows were then... Last year I went against the general tide by making The Pass my Show of the Year, and I think my 2015 favourite is just as unlikely to feature in too many of the "official" lists. I've also got the successor to In the Vale of Health as Stinker of the Year to award, and this one I think might find a lot more agreement. But before the Top Ten and Bottom Five I've got the Everything Else to look at, and maybe that'll be where we figure out what this theatrical year was all about.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Theatre review: Guys and Dolls

A big musical to finish off my theatrical 2015 and, after Gypsy, another Chichester hit settles into the Savoy for a limited run (it has to be limited because one of the stars will be otherwise engaged for much of next year.) In Frank Loesser (music and lyrics,) Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' (book) adaptation of Damon Runyon short stories, Guys and Dolls, the less salubrious side of Broadway is addicted to all-night gambling despite the law cracking down hard on it. Nathan Detroit (David Haig) runs a floating craps game* but the police clampdown has made suitable venues hard to find, and the garage where he hopes to hold the next game is demanding an advance of $1000 he doesn't have. But as luck would have it, high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) has just returned to New York, and Nathan happens to know he can't resist an unusual bet.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Theatre review: The Dazzle

Inspired by a true story of a pair of wealthy brothers found starved to death in a mansion filled with junk, Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle gets a site-specific production from Simon Evans in the former Central St Martins School of Art in Charing Cross Road, rechristened Found 111. In early 20th century New York, Langley Collyer (Andrew Scott) is a renowned concert pianist blessed or cursed with incredibly acute senses and a memory that doesn't discard anything. So he can remember things he saw from his crib, and hearing a piece of music played even fractionally out of tune is like torture to him. It's made him wildly eccentric, and as his peculiarities have got worse his brother Homer (David Dawson) has given up his job as a lawyer. Ostensibly acting as Langley's accountant, he's actually more like his brother's carer, making sure he bathes, eats and turns up to his concerts, none of which he could necessarily be trusted to do of his own volition.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Theatre review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I don't know how dangerous she is, but this Lesley Aisons certainly seems like a bit of a cow.

Based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses is still best known for its hit film adaptation*, but enough time has passed to bring it back to the stage, as Josie Rourke does at the Donmar. In 18th century France, the nobility's reputations depend on them maintaining a strict morality - or at least appearing to, while getting up to whatever they like behind closed doors. Men can get away with more than women, so the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West,) despite something of a caddish reputation, is still welcome in polite society because of his charm and the frisson of scandal. Not only are the rumours about his sexual conquests true, he has an unsuspected accomplice in the outwardly respectable widow, the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer.) The two were once lovers, but have left that behind to focus on corrupting others: They dare and egg each other on to find the most virtuous young nobles in Paris society, seduce then discard them.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Theatre review: Hapgood

Howard Davies looks around the Tom Stoppard back catalogue and finds something of an oddity in Hapgood, a Cold War spy drama that opens with a dead letter drop in a swimming pool's changing rooms, with multiple briefcases and identically-dressed men making it look less like an exchange of secrets, more like a game of Find the Lady. Hapgood, codenamed Mother (Lisa Dillon,) is the British spymaster in charge of this operation, and when it goes Hapwrong it becomes obvious that someone on the team is betraying them. Suspicion seems to rest firmly on Ridley (Gerald Kyd,) but Hapgood's boss Blair (Tim McMullan) seems to think he can only have done it if she was in on it too. Or maybe he doesn't suspect her at all - the characters are all constantly trying to trip each other up in a series of traps and bluffs.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Theatre review: No Villain

The Finborough must be kicking themselves to have missed this one, not only a forgotten play by one of the 20th century's great dramatists but his first, and never previously staged to boot. Arthur Miller wrote No Villain at university - in six days - because he was broke, and the Avery Hopwood playwrighting award offered a $250 top prize. He won the award and the money, but evidently the competition didn't actually extend to producing the winning script, and it got filed away. As Miller went on to become a celebrated playwright the existence of No Villain doesn't seem to have been much of a secret - director Sean Turner found mention of it in Miller's published memoirs, which is where his interest was piqued. But as it's a common phenomenon for a prolific writer's best-known plays to be revived constantly while others gather dust, I'm not entirely surprised that nobody before Turner had actually bothered to seek out a copy and see if it was worth staging.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Theatre review: Cymbeline (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

I imagine the Globe consider the two, hugely popular plays opening in the new year to be the big hitters of the winter season, but I know I won't be alone in most looking forward to the two that opened before Christmas, and which make it to the stage far less frequently. Joining Dominic Dromgoole's own production of Pericles is Sam Yates' take on another late romance that I have seen performed before, but so long ago I was essentially coming to it fresh, the ancient Britons vs Romans epic Cymbeline. Princess Innogen (Emily Barber) has married her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Jonjo O'Neill,) much to the fury of the King: Cymbeline (Joseph Marcell) has himself recently remarried, and promised the new Queen (Pauline McLynn) that his daughter would marry her son Cloten (Calum Callaghan.)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Theatre review: The Lorax

The colourful worlds and wacky rhymes of Dr. Seuss would make him seem a natural fit for stage adaptation, but his books are so short that expanding his stories to make a full-length show can't be easy without losing a lot of their charm. David Greig, though, has succeeded in giving new life to one of the writer's most heartfelt stories, as he brings a musical version of The Lorax to the Old Vic. In this expanded version of the environmental fable, the Once-ler (Simon Paisley Day) is a dreamer who travels the world hoping and failing to invent something amazing, until he stumbles upon a forest of colourful Truffula trees, that produce an incredibly soft and fluffy wool. Knitting it into a shapeless thing he calls a thneed, it becomes a must-have accessory despite nobody being quite sure what it is. He builds a thneed factory and a town supported by its economy, ignoring the warnings of the Lorax (voiced by Simon Lipkin,) a woodland creature responsible for the trees and worried about what'll happen when the Once-ler starts chopping them down.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Theatre review: wonder.land

It's the clichés you always hear about musicals - that they're not written, they're rewritten; that every "effortless" hit has spent years in development - that come to mind during wonder.land, the National's much-maligned big winter spectacular. Perhaps going into it with low expectations helped, but it seems that under what is, undoubtedly, something of a mess, a pretty good show is struggling to get out and, given time, might well have done. As the title suggests, Moira Buffini (book and lyrics) and Damon Albarn's (music) musical takes Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories and transposes them to the digital age. Following her parents' breakup, Aly (Lois Chimimba) has moved to a new school where she immediately becomes a target of the resident mean girls, who bully her in real life and online.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Theatre review: Forget Me Not

With the exception of The Royale, 2015 at the Bush has been an inauspicious year to say the least. There's been shows I instantly forgot and ones I really wished I could have forgotten, and their final show is Forget Me Not, which does feature something to remember. Unfortunately that something is a different, and much better show. 60-something Gerry (Russell Floyd) was born in England but taken to Australia aged 4 as part of a scheme to give orphans a better life. It was a disaster because, like Gerry, many of the children ended up on farms as, essentially, unpaid child labour, and were also abused. Following the death of his wife, Gerry's estranged daughter Sally (Sarah Ridgeway) has grudgingly reconnected with him, and together with her boyfriend Mark (Sargon Yelda) has tried to find any relatives he might still have in Liverpool. What they actually find is apparently a common story in cases of "Forgotten Australians" like his.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Theatre review: Pine

If Pine was 20 minutes shorter, it would be a pretty much perfect show. While Hampstead Theatre's main house doesn't tend to do a Christmas production, the Downstairs studio has made its own tradition of programming a twisted version of a festive special. We've had disastrous office parties and dysfunctional family reunions, and this year Jacqui Honess-Martin's play takes us to a large lot selling Christmas trees - not a cheap outfit on a street corner but part of a chain selling quality trees for up to £150 apiece (Polly Sullivan's design makes the audience rows of trees on sale, into which the characters can disappear to work or get off with each other.) The temporary workers there must be well-paid too, as they tend to return year after year. A graduate and aspiring journalist, Gabby (Hannah Britland) is there for the fourth year running as her career goals haven't worked out. She'll be joining her boyfriend in Germany in the New Year but for her last December at Festive Pines her boss Sami (David Mumeni) has chosen to make her manager of this particular outlet.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Theatre review: You For Me For You

Junhee (Katie Leung) and Minhee (Wendy Kweh) are literally starving, but to admit anything was less than 100% perfect in their lives could invite even bigger problems. That's because Mia Chung's You For Me For You takes place in North Korea, and the walls, and maybe even the trees, have ears that could get them reported if the sisters deviate from the script that says they live in The Best Nation in the World. Minhee always seems to trick her younger sister into eating what little food they have, meaning she herself is becoming very ill, so Junhee hatches a scheme for them both to escape the country. But as the Smuggler (Andrew Leung) helps them flee the reluctant Minhee falls down a well, and Chung's already quirky story becomes an Alice in Wonderland fantasy of East, West and two very different paths in life for the two women.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Theatre review: Cinderella (Lyric Hammersmith)

It's my annual trip to the Lyric Hammersmith's pantomime, and the third year Tom Wells takes on writing duties (and possibly the last - next year's Aladdin has, bizarrely, already been announced and put on sale, with Joel Horwood back as writer.) But for 2015 it's the story of Cinderella (Krystal Dockery,) the orphaned girl made to cook and clean up after the wicked Madame Woo (Sara Crowe) and her daughters - Cinderella is unusual among pantos in having two dames, the ugly stepsisters Booty (Matt Sutton) and Licious (Peter Caulfield.) Her only friend is Buttons (Samuel Buttery,) and her only hope of escape is the ball held by Prince Charming (Karl Queensborough,) to which everyone in Hammersmith has been invited. Her stepmother will do everything she can to stop Cinderella going to the ball, but she does have one last magical ally who'll make sure Cinders gets her prince.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Theatre review: The Ballad of Robin Hood

After they provided a popular Christmas show at the previous venue, Tacit Theatre are once again telling tall tales at Southwark Playhouse, and they revisit their setting for The Canterbury Tales to tell them: The actual Tabard Tavern probably stood quite close to where the theatre is now, which makes it a strange fit for a story usually based in and around Nottingham. But The Ballad of Robin Hood isn't quite the usual story of the famous outlaw, and Greg Freeman's story finds a way to bring Robin to London. As the title suggests, the play goes back to the original ballads that first popularised the legend, with a particular interest in some of the darker stories that don't usually get told. Once again the Tabard has been set up as an actual pub with a bar selling mulled wine to the audience, the cast doing songs and dances as everyone comes in (and getting me to provide the drum beats, which is harder than it sounds when you have no innate sense of rhythm, and Rosalind Blessed's distracting you.) Eventually the landlady (Blessed) tells the story of when a Sheriff (Tom Daplyn) brought his prisoner to her bar and he turned out to be Robin Hood himself (Owen Findlay.)

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Theatre review: Here We Go

Caryl Churchill's certainly been very visible lately: Revivals of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and A Number, a new play coming up at the Royal Court, and before that "a short play about death," the variously lyrical and frustrating Here We Go, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Lyttelton. Its three scenes appear to take place in reverse chronological order, beginning at a funeral where mourners including Joshua James, Amanda Lawrence, Alan Williams, Eleanor Matsuura and Madeline Appiah exchange stilted snippets of conversation about the deceased, platitudes about what a memorable character he was and how they can't quite believe he's gone. But we also get a glimpse into their own mortality as each of them turns to the audience to let us know when and how they will die (one will be run over the very next day.) For the next scene we go back a bit to meet the deceased himself (Patrick Godfrey,) moments after his death.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Theatre review: Macbeth (Young Vic)

When Carrie Cracknell directed Medea at the National, Lucy Guerin's choreography was singled out as a major part of the production's atmosphere. Now, for Macbeth at the Young Vic, Cracknell and Guerin share equal directing credit as they attempt to fully integrate dance with Shakespeare's text. Macbeth (John Heffernan) is the star general in Duncan's (Nicholas Burns) Scottish army, but an encounter with three witches feeds his ambitions and makes him impatient to take the throne himself. He and his wife (Anna Maxwell Martin) goad each other into a plot to kill Duncan in his sleep and take his kingdom. They succeed, but as with so many Shakespearean kings he finds power hard to wield. Soon he's arranging more murders to cover up the way he came to the throne, and to quash any new threats.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Theatre review: Linda

Penelope Skinner's Linda opens with the title character bemoaning the fact that cosmetics for women over fifty are regularly advertised with images of much younger women. There'd be irony in the 55-year-old Linda being played by an actor ten years younger, if it weren't for the fact that she's a very last-minute replacement: When Kim Cattrall pulled out of the production with less than a week to go, the Royal Court turned to Noma Dumezweni, who'd only recently worked with director Michael Longhurst, and who's due to make her own directorial debut there next year. Dumezweni's won an Olivier, although hopefully she doesn't bring it up in conversation quite as often as Linda does the marketing award she won ten years ago. She's head of branding at a beauty company, and her "Changing the world, one girl at a time" campaign helped turn them from an obscure brand to a world leader, with a charity arm that funds self-confidence workshops for young women. Now that she's over fifty herself, her new project is for the company to stop women her age from feeling invisible, both in their outreach programmes and in the way they market their products.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Theatre review: Funny Girl

The show hasn't even had its first preview yet, and already it's sold out: It happens to Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and it happened for real when the Menier's revival of her life story sold out within hours of going on sale, largely thanks to the star power of Sheridan Smith. The West End transfer has already been announced and extended once and a Broadway run discussed, so we're very much in "critic-proof" territory. So what's left to say about Michael Mayer's production, which the Menier were allegedly going to shelve if Smith hadn't agreed to star? Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart's musical version of a true story has had some new tweaks to the book from Harvey Fierstein, but remains familiar to anyone who's seen the film version, in which Barbra Streisand's performance became so well-known it's made producers steer clear of reviving the show until now.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Theatre review: Barbarians (Young Vic)

It can't be the best sign of the state of the nation that Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians is being seen as highly relevant in 2015. There was a highly acclaimed Tooting Arts Club production only a couple of months ago that I didn't go to see, because I'd already booked for this one at the Young Vic's Clare: It's the JMK Award production, which I always try to catch if possible, and this year's winner Liz Stevenson surrounds the audience with the 1970s world of Keeffe's three angry young men. A trilogy of one-act plays, Barbarians opens with Killing Time, in which three skinheads have been unemployed for a year since leaving school, and have just seen their former careers advisor coming out of the dole office too. It's a grim setting but we're in a for a lot of dark humour as the trio make a bit of cash a different way: Paul's (Brian Vernel) cousin steals cars to order, and will pay the boys to call him with tips on where he can find the model he's looking for.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Theatre review: The Homecoming

Jamie Lloyd has dropped the "Trafalgar Transformed" branding but he still returns to Trafalgar Studio 1 for his third season of plays; and after the first season's The Hothouse, both Harold Pinter and John Simm are back on the menu with The Homecoming. Somewhere in a dodgy corner of East London is the house where Teddy (Gary Kemp) grew up; he left six years ago, just about keeping in touch enough to let his father Max (Ron Cook) know that he's moved to an American university to teach philosophy. What he neglected to tell his family was that just before he left he got married; so his return in the middle of the night is a surprise but an even bigger one is his wife Ruth (Gemma Chan.) The menacing, aggressively macho environment is one Teddy soon regrets returning to. But far from feeling threatened, Ruth actually seems to thrive in her new surroundings.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Theatre review: Little Eyolf

Richard Eyre returns to the Almeida to conclude a trilogy he began during the previous regime, and his admirable project of improving Ibsen plays by making them quite short. Little Eyolf is the latest play Eyre has adapted and directed, and though it's not quite got the fireworks of recent productions at the venue, it does have a concentrated intensity. There's a lot of Pied Piper metaphor hanging over this story of a young couple whose marriage is broken apart by guilt. Writer Alfred (Jolyon Coy) returns to his family after a trip to the nearby mountains, having made a decision: He's giving up the moralising book he's been trying and failing to write for years, and instead will focus all his time on raising his disabled son Eyolf (Tom Hibberd, alternating with Adam Greaves-Neal and Billy Marlow,) making the child his legacy.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Theatre review: Ben Hur

With West End long-runner The 39 Steps finally shutting up shop this year, it could be that the people behind it are hoping to replace it with another iconic film turned into a frantic four-actor comedy. Whether it'll be making a trip to the Criterion is anyone's guess, but for the time being Ben Hur is providing a lot of laughs at the Tricycle, with surely the silliest Christmas show outside of panto. This time Patrick Barlow's script has a touch of The Play That Goes Wrong about it, as we meet Daniel Veil (John Hopkins,) the self-styled theatrical impresario who's written, directed and produced his stage adaptation of General Lewis "Lew" Wallace's biblical novel, and will of course also be taking on the title role. Alix Dunmore, Richard Durden and Ben Jones join him to play everyone else, and to try and keep the constant set and costume changes running smoothly.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Theatre review: 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down

Not literally though :(

The Finborough's Sunday to Tuesday slot sometimes plays host to forgotten small-scale musicals, and here's one so small-scale the five-strong band outnumber the cast: Jerry Colker (book and lyrics) and Michael Rupert's (music) 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down premiered off-Broadway in 1985, and while it retains some of its charm there's also much to explain why this is the first UK production since the eighties. Ted (Simon Haines) emcees at a small New York comedy club and feels trapped there, until he spots "Angry Guy" comic Phil (Benedict Hastings.) Ted knows a talent-spotter from The Tonight Show and thinks if they team up they stand a chance of impressing him. But he insists they're also joined by his best friend Kenny (Guy Woolf,) who has an irritating surreal routine, a fondness for interrupting other people's acts, and obvious real mental health issues behind the scenes. Despite problems like Kenny's tendency to walk off mid-show and, frankly, the quality of their act, they get their live TV slot and become an overnight success.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Theatre review: Harlequinade and All On Her Own

When life gives you harlequins, make...

Harlequinade has a reputation as a very minor part of the Terence Rattigan canon. It's certainly not notable for its depth, but it's no doubt also suffered from often being paired with one of the playwright's masterpieces, The Browning Version, for no other reason than their both being one-acters. Playing in rep with The Winter's Tale in the SirKenBranCo season, it's paired with a different Rattigan piece, but it's no less of an unusual combination: The evening opens with Zoë Wanamaker in the monologue All On Her Own as widow Rosemary, returning from a date to an empty house. Sitting in the room where her husband died of an overdose, she has a conversation with him about whether it truly was an accident as the coroner ruled, or a suicide; she replies to herself on his behalf, expressing thoughts she's been afraid to say out loud before.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Theatre review: Pericles (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

From no Shakespeare at all in its first two winter seasons, Dominic Dromgoole's swansong at the Globe is an all-Shakespeare season in the Swanamaker. I hope this doesn't become the norm, as I liked having the indoor playhouse as a place to showcase other Jacobean playwrights and works that don't often see the light of day. Of course, even a Shakespeare play can be pretty obscure, and as the theme of the season is to play four of the late romances in rep, two of the quartet are rarities. The reason we seldom see the first is that, apart from the entirely lost plays, Pericles is the one of which the least has survived. The version we have is reconstructed from a a dodgy quarto of fragmented scenes, some attributed to Shakespeare, some to George Wilkins. So it's episodic, inconsistent and full of bizarre tangents and plot contrivances. But Dromgoole opts to view the problems as strengths, playing it as a kind of silly alternative to the Odyssey.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Theatre review: The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies

The psychiatrist RD Laing's theories were a major influence on Equus, so I was interested in seeing a play about the man himself. Laing's work is now widely discredited but Patrick Marmion's The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies takes place in 1970, when Ronnie Laing (Alan Cox) is in his prime: A minor celebrity thanks to regular appearances on BBC2, and running his own mental institution-cum-hippie commune, The Philadelphia Association. There the line between doctors and patients is hard to see: Aaron (Kevin McMonagle) is his long-standing colleague and the sensible balance to Laing's excess; also there is the intermittently American psychiatrist Joe (James Russell,) and Mary (Laura-Kate Gordon,) the resident nurse, who may or may not have got over her coprophilia. But Laing seems to identify most with David (Oscar Pearce,) a South African with a voracious appetite for drink and drugs, who has to be kept in a medically-induced coma much of the time.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Theatre review: Flowering Cherry

According to the Finborough's publicity, when Flowering Cherry premiered in 1957 it was called a British Death of a Salesman, and there are certainly parallels to be drawn. Robert Bolt's Willy Loman figure is Jim Cherry (Liam McKenna,) at one time a travelling insurance salesman who, despite his dislike for the job and actual undisguised contempt for the customers, was good enough at it to be promoted to management. This office job hasn't been as much of a success though, and between frustration and fear of being sacked, he starts to claim he's resigned. Always a compulsive liar and a fantasist, he retreats into a long-held dream of selling up and returning to his native Somerset to start an apple orchard. It's left to his long-suffering wife Bel (Catherine Kanter) and their children to try and find the truth in what he tells them, and figure out what kind of future they actually have.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Theatre review: Sparks

Jess (Sophie Steer) turns up on the doorstep of a woman too stunned to speak, soaked by the rain and carrying a goldfish in a bowl. Simon Longman's Sparks is the classic theatrical staple of family members suddenly reunited after a long time apart - in this case over twelve years, and as the women only appear to be in their early twenties, it's obvious they were separated when they were very young. The woman is Jess' sister Sarah (Sally Hodgkiss,) who maintains a shocked silence as the girl who walked out one day and hasn't been heard from since returns as a motor-mouthed woman with a backpack full of booze. The latter is part of what will eventually help Sarah loosen up and discuss the abandonment she's felt since her last remaining relative left her, and the lonely life she's led since.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Theatre review: Waste

I have a certain amount of healthy suspicion for plays best-known for being banned. What was too unspeakably controversial to be staged in - in this instance - 1907, tends to have lost its shock value by now, and all too often what's left without it would have been long-since forgotten under normal circumstances. It seems to have been a combination of themes of abortion, suicide, and corruption at the highest levels of power that kept Waste off the stage until 1936. Harley Granville Barker's play about political scandal sees the Conservative Party win a General Election, with a mandate that requires them to pass a law separating Church from State. It's not a job anyone in the party actually wants so the new Prime Minister, Horsham (Michael Elwyn) takes the unusual step of inviting Independent MP Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) to join his cabinet with particular responsibility for drafting and passing the disestablishment bill.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Theatre review: Thirty Million Minutes

Dawn French's monologue is advertised as being neither standup comedy nor theatre but somewhere in between; essentially Thirty Million Minutes is a personal memoir that, instead of publishing, French has chosen to perform. The thirty million minutes of the title correspond roughly to her current age of 58, and the show is loosely held together by a theme of her learning how to be the things life demands of her: First a daughter and sister, then wife and mother, and later single again - before eventually and unexpectedly becoming a wife and stepmother again. The majority of her reminiscences come from childhood, growing up in an RAF family and therefore often moving around, calling places as diverse as Cyprus and Plymouth home. Discussion of her adult life also focuses on the personal and doesn't touch at all on her comedy career, although there's a few audience-pleasing offhand references to Jennifer Saunders, and photos of many of her comic contemporaries.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Theatre review: A Further Education

A shaky start could resolve itself in great things or a complete nosedive; true of many people's first year at university, and of Will Mortimer's debut play about a mature student, A Further Education. At an unnamed (more on this later) university, new tutor Chris (Oliver Hembrough) has three first year students in his tutorial group. Straight out of school are Lydia (Isabella Laughland) and Joshua (Makir Ahmed,) while Charlotte (Stella Gonet) is a local, much older but sharper than any of them when it comes to dissecting the classics. Her grades are high and her fellow-students quickly accept her in their social circle as well, and she even ends up becoming friendly with the strident but scatty new Vice-Chancellor Rachel (Issy van Randwyck.) There's more than just her age and the breadth of her knowledge that sets Charlotte apart from the rest of the students though, and Joshua and Lydia soon stumble upon a secret about her.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Theatre review: Henry V (RSC / Barbican)

Shakespeare's history sequence comes to a close with Henry V. Well no, obviously it doesn't; but after initially suggesting the entire octet would form the spine of the RSC's complete works over the years, Gregory Doran's more recently been talking about the project as wrapping up here. Accordingly this production will eventually be joined in rep by the return of his Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 & Part 2, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up farming directing duties for the Henry VIs out to someone else. In the meantime this tetralogy concludes with Henry IV's dynasty finding a brief but memorable moment when its legitimacy isn't questioned: The best way to distract from trouble at home is to make a big noise abroad, so Henry V pursues a dubious claim to large parts of France.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Kenneth Branagh Company at the Garrick Theatre)

The latest director to launch his own West End residency is Kenneth Branagh, and he promises to stick around until the end and not get distracted by a shiny thing this time. For the opener SirKenBran co-directs with Rob Ashford and stars as Leontes in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Leontes is king of Sicilia, and lifelong best friends with the king of Bohemia, Polixenes (Hadley Fraser.) Until, that is, for no reason at all, he becomes convinced that Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Herminone (Miranda Raison) and that the baby the queen is pregnant with isn't his. By the time the oracle at Delphi confirms Hermione's innocence it's too late: His public accusation and humiliation of her has brought about deaths and divine retribution, and Leontes' misery can only be ended 16 years later, when his lost baby daughter Perdita (Pirate Jessie Buckley) is found in Bohemia.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Theatre review: Medea (Gate Theatre)

This is certainly the year not just for Greek Tragedy, but for plays that take some of the mythology's most famous stories and rewrite them in a new way. The Gate's Medea opens just as the Almeida's nears the end of its run, and while that interpretation - one I liked less the more I thought about it - sidelined the story's most notorious victims, to the point of not caring whether they were actually dead or not by the end, this one puts them centre stage. Writer Kate Mulvany and writer-director Anne-Louise Sarks tell the story from the bedroom shared by serious pre-teen Leon (Bili Keogh, alternating with Keir Edkins-O'Brien) and his hyper little brother Jasper (Samuel Menhinick, alternating with Bobby Smallridge.) They play, argue and discuss - tentatively - the conversation going on downstairs between their parents, which they are vaguely aware is about the future of their marriage. They're to stay in their room while their parents talk; the ominous first sound we hear is them being locked in by their mother.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Theatre review: As You Like It (National Theatre)

With Rufus Norris, by his own admission, nowhere near as strong on the classics as his predecessor and relying heavily on advice from his associates, the choice of As You Like It as the first Shakespeare play of his tenure was greeted as something of a predictably safe choice. Happily this isn't something that extends to Polly Findlay's production which, though far from the funniest version of the play I've ever seen, may be one of the most charming and visually inventive. The setting is the court of a usurping duke - here a modern-day stock trading office - whose daughter Celia (Patsy Ferran) has been allowed to keep her cousin Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) as a companion. But Duke Frederick's (Leo Wringer) moods are unpredictable, and he decides to banish Rosalind. She and Celia escape to the forest, taking with them the clown Touchstone (Mark Benton.)

Monday, 9 November 2015

Theatre review: RoosevElvis

A couple of years ago American company the TEAM brought their show Mission Drift to The Artist Formerly Known As Shed, a Vegas-based piece of Americana that was generally well-liked but which I didn't warm to. I believe in giving second chances though, and this time they're at the Royal Court with a show that had many moments that entertained me, but as a whole struggled to remain memorable even as far as the journey home. Ann (Libby King) is a butch, shy lesbian who works in a meat processing plant in South Dakota; having started on reception she was moved to the factory floor as her bosses thought she was "more suited" to that environment, and she's been there for 15 years. She loves Elvis Presley and when she gets back home has imagined conversations with him to stave off her loneliness, until she finds Brenda (Kristen Sieh) on a dating site. After a couple of days together they decide it isn't going to work out, but their extended date includes a trip to Mount Rushmore, where Brenda tells her she comes from the same town as Theodore Roosevelt, whom it seems Elvis idolised in turn. Emboldened by her recent experiences, Ann decides to drive to Graceland in RoosevElvis.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Theatre review: Love for Love

In the prologue to William Congreve's Love for Love Angelica (Justine Mitchell) promises all sorts of fun over the next few hours on the stage then ends by saying that, for the more discerning audience member, they'll even throw in a plot. Well there's lots of fun moments on the Swan's stage but calling what happens an actual plot might be stretching the term to breaking point. We're in Restoration Comedy territory, in genre if not historically, as the play premiered in Queen Anne's time and - in a nod to Helen Edmundson's play that will be in rep later in the season - Queen Anne herself is in the audience: In one of many fourth wall-breaking touches, an audience member gets to wear the crown (this afternoon's Queen was clearly thrilled to be chosen as she kept it on throughout.)

Friday, 6 November 2015

Theatre review: Husbands & Sons

The National's new epic is called Husbands & Sons but it's the wives and mothers - underappreciated and overbearing, respectively - who hold centre stage. Ben Power adapts three DH Lawrence stories of a coal-mining town between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in 1911, having them play out in parallel in a single neighbourhood. Three houses are marked out on Bunny Christie's in-the-round set: At the Holroyds', Lizzie (Anne-Marie Duff) is always saying she's finally had enough of her husband Charles (Martin Marquez,) an angry drunk who's not above stumbling home in the middle of the night with other women in tow. But she always takes him back, despite the efforts of the plant's electrician Blackmore (Philip McGinley,) even when he reveals he's in love with her, and his plan to help her escape with him to Spain.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Theatre review: The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead

To complete the Homeric theme of the Swanamaker's pre-season we have writer Simon Armitage and director Nick Bagnall, who gave us a play based on the Iliad in 2014, now returning to tackle the Odyssey. I wasn't sure what to expect as I found their take on The Last Days of Troy a somewhat redundant addition to the many other versions of the story, but for The Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead Armitage has found a new angle and explored it well. In modern-day Britain, a few weeks before a general election, Smith (Colin Tierney,) a minister popular with the people but not necessarily so with his own party, wants to go home to Cumbria for his son's 18th birthday. But the Prime Minister (Simon Dutton) co-opts him to show his face at a World Cup qualifier in Istanbul. England win the match but in the aftermath Smith and his friends get caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time - attempting to break up a violent brawl, a photo taken from the wrong angle makes it look like the minister dealt a killer blow, and it goes viral.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie (Headlong)

Tennessee Williams' early masterpiece The Glass Menagerie has suddenly proved popular for fresh interpretation; the production in Southampton was a bit too far for me, but Headlong's tour includes a stop at Richmond, which is certainly doable, especially when it's an adventurous company taking on one of my favourite playwrights. Ellen McDougall's production is very much stripped down - not in the way that its star Greta Scacchi used to be best known for but in a way that, like so much else in the last 18 months, wears an Ivo van Hove influence on its sleeve. Fly Davis' set is a black box, bare except for a staircase, a couple of lamps and a single snowglobe representing the collection of glass animals that gives the play its title. But this isn't too far a departure from what's intended, as the prologue informs us this is a memory play where everything is a bit hidden in shadow and fuzzy around the edges, its narrator - an obvious stand-in for Williams in this autobiographical work - an unreliable one.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Theatre review: Tomcat

After a few years based at the Finborough, the annual Papatango playwrighting prize has moved to a new home with roughly twice the seating capacity, in Southwark Playhouse's Little space. This year's winner, James Rushbrooke, taps into the current trend for plays about science with Tomcat. In a not-too-distant future, genetic screening of foetuses has resulted in the eradication of most illnesses, but at the cost of roughly one in four pregnancies being terminated - a legal requirement if a scan finds anything out of the ordinary. A subculture does exist that rejects this degree of state interference, so there are a few exceptions - one of them is 12-year-old Jessie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox,) who's been kept under observation by the authorities since they discovered her at the age of three. She's lived in the same windowless room since then, forbidden from touching people or making any sudden moves: According to her genetic makeup, she might be a psychopath.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Theatre review: The Moderate Soprano

A strong cast headed by Roger Allam and Future Dame Nancy Carroll struggles to make David Hare's latest play feel like the finished article. A former chemistry teacher at Eton, John Christie (Allam in an embarrassingly ill-fitting bald cap) was a 50-year-old virgin when he went to the opera and fell for The Moderate Soprano. A barrage of gifts began the wealthy eccentric's courtship of the much younger woman, and eventually convinced Audrey (Carroll) to marry him and settle in his country home in Sussex. Today the name Glyndebourne is synonymous with opera but in 1934 the idea of building a small opera house in the grounds was the latest of Christie's bizarre grand schemes, his plan for an annual season a thinly-disguised showcase for his wife's modest talents. A Wagner fan, Christie looked to Germany for his creatives, and with the rise of Hitler some big names had found themselves out of favour with the Nazi regime.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Theatre review: The Hairy Ape

After a year or so in the round, the Old Vic has returned to its traditional proscenium arch configuration, but in every other respect the second show in the season continues new boss Matthew Warchus' efforts to distance himself from the heritage style of his predecessor's tenure. This time Warchus has looked down the road to the Young Vic for one of its regular artists - one I've had trouble warming to in the past. Director Richard Jones brings his cartoon-like style to Eugene O'Neill, with Bertie Carvel bulking up to create another new look as The Hairy Ape. Carvel plays Yank, the de facto leader of a team of workers stoking the fires below decks on a cruise ship.They sweat and get filthy in the dark to keep the engine going while above them the wealthy passengers enjoy the view, rarely giving them a thought.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Theatre review: Dinner With Friends

Like many of the Pulitzer winners I've seen before, Dinner With Friends - Donald Margulies' play won the literary prize in 2000 - concerns itself with middle class American couples spending time in each others' homes. Unlike the others, it isn't actually about racism, or indeed any subject larger than the relationships we see on stage. Food writer Gabe (Shaun Dooley) and his wife Karen (Sara Stewart) are having a friend and her children round for dinner, giving her a blow-by-blow account of their recent holiday in Italy. It's not the relentlessness of their narrative that makes Beth (Finty Williams) suddenly burst into tears though: She said the reason her husband didn't join them at the dinner party was that he was away on business, but in fact he's left her for another woman, and they're now planning to get a divorce.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Theatre review: Omeros

Before the Globe's winter season kicks off in earnest with the first Shakespeare productions to be designed especially for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse*, there's something of a Homeric mini-season as a taster. We start with the return of Joseph Marcell in a piece he performed a couple of times last year, Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros, which transposes some of the characters from the Iliad to the Caribbean setting of the poet's birthplace, St Lucia. So we have a fisherman called Achille, at odds with Hector, who drives a bus to and from the airport, over who owns a little rusted tin; and an elderly Philoctète who believes his rotten, stinking foot is a curse passed down from his slave ancestors, a throwback to the chains around their ankles. There's also, of course, a Hélène, pregnant and fought over by the local men even as they seem to despise her for her pride and vanity.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Theatre review: Treasure

The latest "forgotten" play to be unearthed at the Finborough Theatre is thought to be a British premiere: Colin Chambers has written a new adaptation of David Pinski's 1906 Yiddish play Treasure. Part of a whole genre of Yiddish theatre that went on to inspire Fiddler on the Roof, the play is set in a Jewish town in a part of Russia that would nowadays be within the boundaries of Belarus. There Chone (James Pearse) has been the local gravedigger for the last 14 years, not a well-paid job but a steady one as the harsh conditions mean he's never short of customers. When his simpleton son Judke (Sid Sagar) buries his dog, he finds a stash of sovereigns which he gives as a gift to his sister Tille (Olivia Bernstone.) This puts Tille in an unusual position of power over Chone and his wife Jachne-Braine (Fiz Marcus,) who beg her for the gold coins; but she has plans to see what it's like to be rich, if only for one day.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Theatre review: Playground

Enid Blyton's Famous Five books were a major part of my childhood: Adventure stories about upper-class children who survive deadly peril despite one of them being too stupid to know his own name, and another getting herself kidnapped on a roughly hourly basis, they taught the valuable lesson that it's easy to spot a criminal through the practical application of casual racism. The books get a sinister part to play in Peter Hamilton's Playground, or at least a sinister effect is attempted; or is it? I still haven't discounted the possibility that it's meant to be a comedy. Whatever it's trying to be, it fails. In Victoria Park in Bow, a serial killer has been decapitating children and leaving Famous Five books at the scene. When the murderer's identity is eventually revealed, it turns out the kids had a very obvious connection pointing to the culprit, which it took the police five corpses to spot.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Theatre review: Xanadu

You'd imagine an '80s-themed jukebox musical based on a notorious Olivia Newton-John movie about a roller-disco to be very, very camp. But actually Douglas Carter Beane's 2007 stage version of Xanadu will surprise you. By being so much camper than you'd ever expected. "Wow, this is like children's theatre for 40-year-old gay people!" is how one of the characters describes it: It's Venice Beach, California in 1980, and street artist Sonny (Samuel Edwards) has drawn a chalk picture of (seven of) the nine muses on a wall, but isn't quite happy with it. To help him with inspiration, the real leader of the ancient Greek muses, Clio (Carly Anderson,) descends from Olympus. But instead of helping him with his art, together they hatch a plan to create the ultimate expression of all arts, from music to dance to epic poetry: A roller-disco in an abandoned theatre called the Xanadu.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Theatre review: Plaques and Tangles

Plaques and Tangles are two kinds of formations in the brain that are thought to be responsible for Alzheimer's Disease; tangles are also a good description of how Nicola Wilson's play is structured, and not always in the way the playwright, and director Lucy Morrison intended. Megan (Monica Dola) is in her forties, and fast approaching the age at which her mother (Bríd Brennan) died, driving a car the wrong way down a motorway. She had a hereditary form of early-onset Alzheimer's, and as she starts to forget words and get her memories mixed up, it becomes increasingly obvious that Megan has inherited it. In fact, concerned about whether she had the gene, she took a test decades ago, but never told her husband Jez (Ferdy Roberts.)

Monday, 19 October 2015

Theatre review: A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes

Last year Marcus Gardley took loose inspiration from Lorca's bleak The House of Bernarda Alba, to create the serious but hugely entertaining House That Will Not Stand. So I was very much looking forward to him teaming up with director Indhu Rubasingham again for a play based on a much lighter source: A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes is an adaptation of Molière’s satirical farce Tartuffe. The play could also be seen as a comic companion piece to Lucas Hnath's The Christians, as both playwrights are the sons of preachers in American megachurches, and that's where they've set their stories. But unlike Hnath's successful church, Gardley's play takes place in one that's hardly thriving: Tardimus Toof (Lucian Msamati) is the self-styled Apostle whose apparently successful healing of the sick isn't drawing in any cash - although it does give him the chance to hit on the young women he heals, much to the fury of his wife.