Thursday, 20 April 2017

Theatre review: Whisper House

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

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Theatre review: Guards at the Taj

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

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Theatre review: The Hypocrite

2017 is the year of Hull as UK city of culture, and although they're based in Warwickshire the RSC have got in on the act, co-producing a new commission with Hull Truck Theatre. The city is at the heart of The Hypocrite, which although being written in the style of a Restoration comedy takes its story from true events from well before the Restoration, indeed before there was any need for a Restoration, as the titular character, Sir John Hotham (Mark Addy,) was the Governor of Hull in 1642, just as the Civil War was about to break out. His story was a scandal that put the city at the centre of the action, so it's natural that Hull's best and funniest living playwright should be chosen to tell it. But he must have been busy so they just got Richard Bean in to recycle some of the more successful bits from One Man, Two Guvnors.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Cheek by Jowl)

After a couple of years away Cheek by Jowl finally return to London, and with their English-speaking company, with a rather odd production of a Shakespeare play I rarely like. Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod go pretty basic for The Winter's Tale, on an almost-bare stage, with music only playing occasionally, and a monochrome Sicilia where King Leontes' (Orlando James) story opens with a dumbshow that gives us an idea of his relationship with the three most important people in his life, his lifelong best friend Polixenes (Edward Sayer,) King of Bohemia, wife Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke,) and their son Mamillius (Tom Cawte.) The happy tableaux of the opening belie the fact that Leontes will soon lose all three of them due to a violent fit of jealousy that's completely unprovoked and makes little sense.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Theatre review: 46 Beacon

A gentle - perhaps too gentle - coming out story parks up at the smaller Trafalgar Studio for a month, Bill Rosenfield's 46 Beacon looking back at gay life in early 1970s America through rose-tinted glasses. Or possibly rose-tinted velour. Robert (Jay Taylor) is an English actor approaching middle age, who's taken a job in a Boston theatre to take a break from problems at home. Alan (Oliver Coopersmith) is a teenager with a part-time job at the theatre, and Robert has spotted and taken an interest in him, noticing that Alan is interested too. After one performance he invites him back to his small flat where he gently seduces him. And yes, although it's made clear Alan wants to be seduced but is mostly just reticent because of nerves about his first time and admitting his sexuality to himself, there is a bit of a creepy undertone to the age gap (though Robert doesn't realise at first just how big the gap is. The age gap, not his anus.)

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Theatre review: Diminished

In one of the better Hampstead Downstairs shows in a while, actor and filmmaker Sam Hoare makes a strong playwrighting debut with Diminished, which director Tom Attenborough sets in a clinical in-the-round space provided by the space's regular designer Polly Sullivan. It's a blank canvas that evokes a mental facility where Mary (Lyndsey Marshall) is being held. Although it takes a while for it to be said out loud it's clear she's there because she killed her severely disabled baby daughter. She'll be pleading diminished responsibility on the basis that depression and exhaustion caused temporary insanity, but with only a couple of days left until her trial she's decided that's not what she wants. She says she knew exactly what she was doing and deserves to serve a full prison sentence, and tries to convince Dr Parker (Rufus Wright) that his initial diagnosis was wrong.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Theatre review: The Lottery of Love

Its programming is fairly varied but Artistic Director Paul Miller's productions of classics a couple of times a year have become a signature of the Orange Tree. He usually picks British plays from the last century or so, but this time he's ventured a bit further afield, to the 18th century French writer Marivaux and his comedy The Lottery of Love. Sylvia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Richard (Ashley Zhangazha) have been promised to each other since childhood, and are about to meet for the first time. Their fathers have both agreed they only need to go ahead with the marriage if they like each other, and Sylvia wants to make sure she catches Richard as he really is, not just on his best behaviour. So she hatches a scheme, agreed to by her father Mr Morgan (Pip Donaghy,) to trade places with her maid Louisa (Claire Lams,) and get all the gossip from her prospective husband's servants.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Theatre review: 42nd Street

The pull-quote on the poster promises one of the most famous openings in musical theatre - no, not Elaine Paige's vagina, but the seemingly infinite rows of tap-dancing chorus girls and boys who fill the stage as the curtain goes up on 42nd Street. Harry Warren (music,) Al Dubin (lyrics,) Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble's (book - Bramble also directs) musical is based on a novel, presumably a pretty short one as this classic story of overnight stardom is the Broadway success fantasy at its simplest. Peggy (Clare Halse) is fresh off the bus in New York when she flukes her way into the chorus of a new Broadway show. During the out-of-town tryouts though, leading lady Dorothy (Sheena Easton) breaks her leg, and the only wait, Sheena Easton? I haven't heard that name in decades. OK, fair enough, Sheena Easton it is. The only way for the show to go on is to cancel all the previews, bring the Broadway opening forward, rehearse Peggy in the lead in 36 hours straight and open to the critics immediately.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Theatre review: Consent

It feels like a while since we had a new Nina Raine play so Consent is a welcome arrival at the National, and the playwright's sharp dialogue finds a natural home in a group of friends most of whom are barristers. Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin) have been married for ten years and have only just had their first child; Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James) have two children but their marriage has hit a rocky patch as Rachel suspects Jake of having an affair. The sextet is rounded off when Ed sets up his colleague Tim (Pip Carter) with Kitty's actor friend Zara (Daisy Haggard,) but this has the side effect of the two men's antagonistic relationship in court spilling out into their personal lives as Tim accuses Ed of actually wanting Zara for himself.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Theatre review: Incident at Vichy

Arthur Miller remains popular and respected enough that rediscoveries of his obscure work always do well - the Finborough's latest has already sold out its run and added a couple of extra matinees. But unlike No Villain audiences won't find something that echoes his more famous work too closely, as director Phil Willmott's contention is that Incident at Vichy is the closest Miller came to absurdism. The setting is a concrete and frightening enough one though: In the early days of the Nazi occupation of France, several men are taken off the streets of Vichy; some have their papers checked, some have their noses measured. They're left in a waiting room and called in one by one to be seen by a German scientist (Timothy Harker.) Most are Jewish, although given the rumours they've heard they don't mention that at first, only using the euphemism "Peruvian."

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Theatre review: Love in Idleness

It's hard to review any show with Eve Best in it and know for sure how good the play itself is. I suspect Love in Idleness is a pretty mediocre play by Terence Rattigan's standards - which still puts it above most, admittedly - but Best's presence elevates it to a thing of pure joy. She plays Olivia, a poor widow whose son was evacuated during World War II and has been living in Canada for the last four years. The War is nearing its end and Michael (Edward Bluemel,) now nearly 18, is returning to London, meaning his mother has to find a way to tell him something she's been putting off: She's been living with a wealthy Canadian industrialist who's also serving as Churchill's cabinet minister for tanks. Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head) is still married but has separated from his wife and is only holding off on a divorce to spare the Government a scandal; he's promised to marry Olivia once the war is over.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Theatre review: Adam and Eve and Steve

Taking what's usually a homophobic cliché and turning it into a decidedly gay-friendly musical is Wayne Moore (music) and Chandler Warren's (book and lyrics) Adam and Eve and Steve. God (Michael Christopher) has created Adam (Joseph Robinson) and is preparing to create a mate for him when Beelzebub (Stephen McGlynn) intervenes and creates Steve (Dale Adams) instead. By the time Eve (Hayley Hampson) turns up Adam's already besotted with his new male friend. In fact he likes both of them equally but the fact that everyone's telling him he should be with Eve exclusively only puts him off her. Warren and Moore's show promises a bit of silly fun and absolutely delivers - the songs aren't going to win any awards for originality but they're lively and daft, and the cast have a lot of fun singing them that transfers to the audience.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Theatre review: The Life

I would consider Sharon D. Clarke to be a fairly big name, certainly in London theatre circles, so it's a bit of a coup for Southwark Playhouse that she's starring in their latest musical. But then Clarke seems like the kind of actor who'll choose roles based on how much she likes them rather than how starry they are, whether it's panto or an ageing hooker in an ensemble piece like The Life. If Guys and Dolls is the classic musical about Broadway's past as one of New York's seediest streets, then Cy Coleman (music) Ira Gasman and David Newman's (book and lyrics) musical catches up with it a little while before it gets cleaned up and tourist-friendly, and finds it more dangerous than ever. It's 1978* and almost every character we meet is either a prostitute or a pimp; Vietnam vet Fleetwood (David Albury) currently only pimps out his own girlfriend Queen (T'Shan Williams) as they save up to get away from New York and make a new start.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Theatre review: Don Juan in Soho

Having heard there was a stage left in London without one of his shows on it, Patrick Marber directs a revival of his Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham's. A modern relocation of Molière's Don Juan, it does stick to blank verse and a sometimes stylised turn of phrase in among the text speak and swearing. David Tennant plays DJ, heir to an earldom who, with no real demands on his time, chooses to spend all of it chasing after sex. Although he's happy enough to pay for it, he takes particular pleasure in pursuit and corruption, and in the opening scene has just returned from honeymoon: Having pursued the virginal Elvira (Danielle Vitalis) for two years and married her just to get her into bed, he's now got what he wanted and has cheerfully broken her heart, telling her he wants a divorce after a fortnight.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Theatre review: The Wipers Times

Next year's centenary of the Armistice will probably see as many First World War plays as the centenary of its start did, but Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have got in early with their offering, and as befits editor and writer of Private Eye their angle is to look at a satirical publication. The Wipers Times takes its title from a weekly (if they could find the paper to print it that week) newspaper published from the trenches, which in turn was named after the English soldiers' mispronunciation of Ypres. That's where former printer Sergeant Tyler (Dan Tetsell) discovers a working printing press, which his Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) use to create a morale-boosting collection of spoof advertisements and takedowns of the official war correspondents, whose articles make it sound as if they're in the trenches, it's just that no soldier has ever actually seen them there.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Theatre review: The Chemsex Monologues

Patrick Cash's The Chemsex Monologues has had some good buzz in the last year, but the King's Head's packed schedule (which tends to put shows I might otherwise be interested in on at 9pm on a school night,) meant there wasn't a chance for me to see it; Luke Davies' production now returns and has a couple of matinees, so I managed to fit it in. Although it deals with gay characters I can identify with the play about as much as I can with one set in a remote African village: I've never been a big clubber, my sanity's fragile enough without adding drugs to the mix, and frankly the idea that you could be having enough sex to get bored of it and need chemicals to spice it up seems like science fiction. Still, Cash manages to invoke a world that doesn't seem all that alien in the end, despite revolving around a series of club nights and the private sex parties that follow them, where everyone is on a cocktail of drugs so safe sex easily becomes an afterthought.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Theatre review: Antony and Cleopatra (RSC / RST)

The bonkers Titus Andronicus aside, the Roman plays aren't among my favourite Shakespeares, but they're hard to avoid this year: The RSC is basing its entire summer season around them, and only a week after seeing Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies I'm in Stratford-upon-Avon for a full take on the play that provided that epic with its climax: Antony and Cleopatra starts with Mark Antony (Antony Byrne,) who was among the victors at the end of Julius Caesar (which I'll be catching, out of order, in a few weeks' time,) as part of a Triumvirate sharing power over the Roman Empire. Lepidus (Patrick Drury) is older and a voice of reason, but the younger Octavius Caesar (Ben Allen) is more unpredictable, and could make a play for sole power if he thinks Antony's no longer up to the task of maintaining an empire.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Theatre review: The Bear / The Proposal

In response to the battle lines that have been drawn around the world's public bathrooms with regard to transgender people in recent years, the Young Vic was one of the first London theatres to put up signs making clear visitors there can use whichever loo they feel more comfortable in. So it's not too surprising to see this inclusive attitude extend to the programming, and the latest Genesis Award winner in the Clare has a cast made up of a trans man, a trans woman, and the bearded drag cabaret star better known as Le Gateau Chocolat. And it is, of all things, an Anton Chekhov double bill that director Lucy J Skilbeck uses to look at fluid gender identities. The Bear / The Proposal is a pair of one-act comedies, and in the first half things are played, no pun intended, straight.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Theatre review: Limehouse

In the last couple of years the Donald and Margot Warehouse has been increasingly staging new political plays, with the latest finding painfully topical relevance in events from 1981, when a breakaway group from Labour formed the Social Democratic Party. Steve Waters' Limehouse takes place over a long Sunday, after a party conference in which the Unions' influence overturned every centrist proposal, positioning Labour firmly at the far left. Already known as the Gang of Four for their vocal disagreement with the direction the party was taking, David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill,) Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi,) Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) and Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) see this as the final straw that will make the party permanently unelectable. They usually meet at the more central home of one of the others, but today Owen insists they come to his house in Limehouse for a change of scenery.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Theatre review: The Frogs

Well into the realm of Stephen Sondheim marginalia, it sounds as if the original 1974 version of The Frogs was never even meant as a full musical. Sondheim and Burt Shevelove took Aristophanes' comedy and built a short revue out of it, not very well-received and soon becoming an obscurity. Nathan Lane then took that revue and expanded it into a full-length show in 2004, Sondheim bulking it up with seven new songs. This, too, was poorly received and went back to being a footnote, but the Jermyn Street Theatre now gives it another try, inspired by the bleak state of current affairs that mirrors the premise of Aristophanes' original: Dionysus (Michael Matus,) god of theatre and wine among other things, despairs at the state of the world and decides people need a great mind like Bernard Shaw to boost their spirits while showing them the error of their ways.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Theatre review: The Kid Stays in the Picture

Telling a true story that features more than a couple of troubled movie productions, The Kid Stays in the Picture has had some teething problems of its own. Simon McBurney and James Yeatman's adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans' memoirs had to cancel its first few previews and postpone press night to tonight. Whether this was down to technical glitches in the multimedia - of which there were still a few in evidence - or the format of the show not coming together I don't know, and to be honest would believe either. Evans started his cinematic career as an actor, one given a chance by a couple of powerful producers who went against the advice of actors and directors to cast him in major roles (the title is a quote from Darryl F. Zanuck putting his foot down.) As it turns out the directors were right, the producers were wrong, and Evans was a critical flop in both his big movies.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Theatre review: Roman Tragedies

It visited the Barbican several years ago, but now that Ivo van Hove is one of the biggest names in theatre internationally, there's enough of an enthusiastic audience for his work to sell out three more performances of one of his most famous Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions. And it certainly takes a certain amount of confidence in the director to commit to watching Roman Tragedies - it runs for six hours without a conventional interval, and is performed entirely in Dutch (with surtitles.) This promenade production conflates three of Shakespeare's four Roman tragedies - the three that have at least some basis in historical fact, beginning with Coriolanus. This first play is the least connected to the rest of the action, as we skip a couple of centuries forward at the end of it, but it does add a symmetry to the evening: Early on Coriolanus (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) sneers in disgust at the prospect of having to smell the common people if he has to campaign for their votes, a sentiment expressed again almost word for word by Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) near the end.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Theatre review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This year's big-name West End casting is getting into its stride now, and after her all-conquering Gypsy Imelda Staunton is one of the biggest; although, having long been a stage stalwart the amount of seasons Conleth Hill has managed to survive in Game of Thrones must have made him a draw to much of the audience as well. Add Luke Treadaway and you've got a high-powered cast for James Macdonald's revival of a 20th century American classic. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the archetypal story of a toxic marriage imploding but, as slowly becomes apparent over one very long night, the situation is even more twisted than it initially appears. George (Hill) is a History lecturer at a small East Coast university, and as his wife Martha (Staunton) is the daughter of the all-powerful college president, it might be expected that he'd have easily advanced in his career.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Theatre review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Southwark Playhouse puts comic books on stage again although we're in significantly darker territory than Usagi Yojimbo with Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which adapts Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel set in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie (Rona Morison) is 15, the same age her mother Charlotte (Rebecca Trehearn) was when she had her. She might not be adding another teenage pregnancy to the family but her own sexual awakening is far from healthy, as she's been seduced by her mother's seedy boyfriend Monroe (Jamie Wilkes.) It's an ongoing affair and although Minnie hasn't particularly fooled herself that it's love, she's still pretty smitten. With an out-of-her-depth mother fond of a number of recreational drugs, and a seemingly more sensible ex-stepfather, Pascal (Mark Carroll,) who writes her letters encouraging her to keep studying, but has something of a distant, academic interest in her himself, Minnie's left to find her own way.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Non-review: The Miser

Professional reviewers get most of the perks but there's one reserved for those of us who pay for our tickets: The right to make a run for it at the halfway point without feeling guilty about it*. So I can't call this a review of the whole of Molière's The Miser, loosely adapted by Sean Foley and Phil Porter, and directed by the former. I didn't actually hate it - if I had I'd probably have stuck it out so I could rip it to shreds with all the information to hand - I just knew by the interval that there was little to be gained from sticking around. In a production that appears to have been cast by watching a week's worth of repeats on Dave, Griff Rhys Jones plays the titular Harpagon, whose children won't see a penny while he's alive, which is a problem as they've both fallen for poorer people: Daughter Elise (Katy Wix) loves butler Valere (Matthew Horne) and son Cleante (Ryan Gage) their neighbour Marianne (Ellie White.)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Theatre review: Ugly Lies the Bone

Lindsey Ferrentino's Ugly Lies the Bone is a play for only five actors - one of whom stays offstage almost throughout - looking at a domestic situation. There's a reason it's landed on the big Lyttelton stage at the National though, and that's because it also encompasses a much larger world, albeit a virtual one. Jess (Kate Fleetwood) has returned from her third tour in Afghanistan after getting caught in an IED explosion, with horrific burns that cover half her face and much of her body. She's in constant pain and coming back to where she grew up doesn't even have the comfort of familiarity: Her Florida town's economy was based around space shuttle launches, but with NASA ending the programme the town has dried up, jobs are scarce and it's becoming a ghost town. Her mother is now in a nursing home with dementia, and Jess refuses to visit her because she's afraid she won't recognise her.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Theatre review: Snow in Midsummer

A few years ago the RSC got caught up in a controversy over not casting enough British East Asian actors in classic Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao - a controversy that now looks very minor compared to the recent Print Room shitshow - but they now seem to be trying to make amends with a new ongoing project of translations of classical Chinese theatre. Of course the RSC's tendency to announce instantly-forgotten projects is notorious - how's that plan to stage the Shakespeare canon in the RST in 5 6 8 years with no repeats going? - but if the opening production is any indication, we have to hope this one has legs. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's Snow in Midsummer is a free adaptation of a 13th century classic, Guan Hanqing's The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Theatre review: Othello (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

With its black title character Othello is, unsurprisingly, most often used as a way of looking at racism, but for the last of this year's Swanamaker season Ellen McDougall has a different approach in mind. After all, the only overt racism in the play comes from Othello's enemies, but with help from a little tinkering with the text McDougall exposes how the misogyny in the play's world is even more deep-rooted. General Othello (Kurt Egyiawan) has made Michelle Cassio (Joanna Horton) his new lieutenant, to the fury of his ensign Iago (Sam Spruell,) who'd been expecting the promotion. Using his reputation as the most trusted of the officers, Iago decides to take revenge in a slow, insidious way.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

theatre review: a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)

debbie tucker green is one of the few playwrights who seems to get away with directing the premiere productions of her own work. this may be because, despite a poetic quality they all share, each of her plays has a very distinct feel, and the way they're staged is often integral to that. take her latest, a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), which marks itself out as doing things differently as soon as you walk into the royal court upstairs: merle hensel's set design is like an inverted thrust staging, with the five actors on a raised stage that runs around three of the walls, while the audience sits in the middle on stools, turning to watch the action. sometimes the actors perform together, others they stand across the room from each other, delivering their lives over the audience's heads. and that's a very on-theme metaphor for a play about the way love can alternately attract and repel people.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Theatre review: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Like so much about Hamlet, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are open to endless interpretation. Two old friends of Hamlet's, they're brought in by King Claudius to spy on his nephew's erratic behaviour, get to the bottom of it if they can, and report back. Later they're used by him again as messengers in an attempt to have Hamlet killed, a plot that ends up backfiring on them. But their appearances are sporadic and brief, leaving each production to fill in the gaps, particularly with regard to how guilty they are of collaboration: Are they happily betraying their friend in return for promised reward? Unhappy with their actions but aware they'll be in danger if they don't comply, like Rosencrantz in the current Robert Icke production, or honestly believing they're helping, like Guildenstern in the same production? Or are their onstage scenes the only idea they have of the main plot, meaning they're barely aware of the story or their part in it?

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Theatre review: I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard

A disturbing little piece at the Finborough in Halley Feiffer's I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard, another American play about writing but dealing with a different popular opinion about the profession than Sex With Strangers did: Laura Eason's play was about the writer as part of some noble calling; Feiffer's subject is the writer as damaged goods, the Hemingway model of the alcoholic genius and the idea that the better the writer, the worse the human being. By that logic David (Adrian Lukis) must be an amazing writer: A celebrated playwright, he has a single daughter, Ella (Jill Winternitz,) whom he had late in life with his second wife. Ella is an actress who's just opened as Masha in a prestige revival of The Seagull, but her father wastes no opportunity to mention that getting any role other than Nina makes her a failure. It's Press Night but instead of waiting with the rest of the cast for the reviews, she's getting drunk at home with David.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Theatre review: Hamlet (Almeida)

Now a fixture as well as a draw at the Almeida following a number of reinterpretations of foreign classics, Robert Icke turns to English theatre's most famous play; but if the text of Hamlet doesn't need translating, the director still finds ways to edit and reshape it. It's a respectful edit that still feels true to Shakespeare but also opens up plenty of opportunities to look at the story from a different angle and throw up a few surprises even to people familiar with the play (which means once I get into details about the production there will be things that could be considered spoilers, even if you know the story inside and out.) Icke's profile means he can get a big name to take the lead, and indeed the days when Andrew Scott was London theatre's secret are long gone. But for all the fanbase he's built on TV, this proves a reminder that it's on stage that he really shines - and not quite in the way that might have been expected of him.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Theatre review: Scarlett

Scarlett (Kate Ashfield) is, or at least was until recently, a successful businesswoman with her own home furnishings shop. For reasons unknown, modern life becomes too much for her and she flees London, disappearing for a week before her mother Bette (Joanna Bacon) and daughter Lydia (Bethan Cullinane) track her down to a remote part of Wales. She plans to sell her shop, buy a chapel on a farm and do it up as her new home. One week in the country has made Scarlett a lot happier in herself, and after a bumpy start she's become close to the farm's owner Eira (Lynn Hunter) and her granddaughter Billy (Gaby French.) But Bette and Lydia are horrified with her decision, and are worried she needs to be hospitalised immediately for the sake of her mental health.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Theatre review: Speech & Debate

An off-Broadway hit that's about to get a film adaptation, Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is a gentle high school comedy, and a pleasingly mainstream look at LGBT teenagers' issues. Solomon (Tony Revolori) is an aspiring journalist whose ambition to get noticed means he always writes about subjects too controversial for the school paper to print. When the town is rocked by the scandal of the mayor having sex with much younger men, he decides to follow up on a rumour of one of his teachers doing the same thing. Howie (Douglas Booth) is an openly gay student who's only just transferred to the school, and been propositioned on Grindr by the drama teacher. He and Solomon find each other in the comments section of a podcast by Diwata (Patsy Ferran,) who's got a vendetta against the teacher for never casting her in school plays.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Theatre review: Killer

In the second of two Philip Ridley plays running in rep underneath Shoreditch Town Hall, Jamie Lloyd returns as director and Soutra Gilmour as designer, but the creatives who have the most obvious impact are sound designers Ben & Max Ringham and George Dennis. Killer is a collection of three monologues, each with a grisly theme as the title (and the fact that it's Ridley) suggests, performed by John MacMillan in the dingy basement rooms. It's a promenade piece that opens with the audience sitting in a circle, facing away from MacMillan in the middle; the lights go out and he narrates a young teenager's fascination with a new gang who - reminding me of the far-right party in Moonfleece - embrace a fascist style and a philosophy based around preparing for an inevitable apocalypse. When the narrator tries to join the gang they have a brutal way of initiating him.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Young Vic)

My first two Shakespeare productions of the year fell on consecutive nights, and while both are comedies they couldn't present more of a contrast, even before I got to their respective theatres: Where I'd been looking forward to Twelfth Night, last year saw A Midsummer Night's Dream even more overexposed than usual, so I was approaching it with some trepidation. Added to that was the publicity promising a particularly dark approach to the play, a cliché that can usually be taken as meaning "we failed to actually make it funny," and in any case the nightmare flipside of the Dream is frequently-explored territory. In the runup to a royal wedding Hermia (Jemima Rooper) and Lysander (John Dagleish,) whose love is forbidden, escape the threat of death by fleeing to the forest. They're pursued by Demetrius (Oliver Alvin-Wilson,) in love with Hermia, and Helena (Anna Madeley,) in love with Demetrius.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

For most plays, having seen another production within four years would seem very recent, but the most popular Shakespeares come along a lot more often than that, and avoiding Twelfth Night for three full calendar years feels like an achievement - and one I was keen to make, because however fresh a director's twist on the story, there's only so much you can do to overcome familiarity. Realistically it would take a lot longer to forget a play I know this well, but under the circumstances this is pretty good going, and at least I break my run with a production I was looking forward to: The big selling point of Simon Godwin's production for the National is that Tamsin Greig plays a gender-flipped Malvolio. Now called Malvolia, she's housekeeper to the wealthy Olivia (Phoebe Fox,) the last in her family and as a result in a declared state of permanent mourning, any romance officially ruled out.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

DISCLAIMER: Drama school productions are classed as amateur performances; but as ever, I try to treat them the same as I would professional ones as that's what the cast will be aiming to do next.

It's been a while since I went to one of LAMDA's public performances, and I've not seen them do a musical before, but Vanessa wouldn't have forgiven me if we'd missed a chance to see one of her absolute favourites, Spring Awakening. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Broadway musical takes Frank Wedekind's famously banned 19th century play and plays it pretty well straight in the spoken-word scenes, adding deliberately anachronistic songs revealing what the kids are really thinking. Melchior (Ross Kugman tonight - two casts alternate between performances) is the first of his classmates to find out about sex, and only because he reads about it in a book. Apart from those Melchior informs himself, the others remain completely unaware as their parents refuse to discuss it. In the case of his girlfriend Wendla (India Shaw-Smith,) her mother's painfully coy description of the facts of life leads to tragedy. Other kids suffering include the resident loser Moritz (Soroosh Lavasani,) whose parents will disown him if he fails, which his teachers are determined he will.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Theatre review: School Play

Alex MacKeith's debut play is a comedy-drama that punctures a situation pressured to the point of breaking: School Play is set in the office of a primary school headteacher and looks at a crisis in education - in particular the almost surreally wrongheaded system in which state schools need to show their students improving if they don't want to lose the very resources that make improvement possible. Lara (Fola Evans-Akingbola) has had to put her teacher training on hold ever since her father got ill, but is keeping her hand in by working as secretary to headteacher Jo (Ann Ogbomo.) Jo's received the students' SATs results and they're decent but not good enough to get the school any additional money next year - and she's just found out they'll be expected to take on an extra 100 pupils as well.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Theatre review: The Pitchfork Disney

Last year Jamie Lloyd's ongoing West End projects kept getting bigger, and arguably lost the plot in the process - I made his Doctor Faustus my Stinker of 2016. Perhaps Lloyd himself feels the scale of things had got a bit out of his control because his first few projects of 2017 see him taking a step back towards something a bit more intimate - although not necessarily low-key, as he opens a mini-season of Philip Ridley plays at Shoreditch Town Hall with the playwright's 1991 debut, The Pitchfork Disney. Presley (George Blagden) and Haley Stray (Hayley Squires) are 28-year-old twins and the only survivors of the apocalypse - at least that's the story they tell themselves to justify their childlike lives cloistered in an East London flat. In fact ever since their parents died a decade ago - probably murdered, possibly by Presley - they've retreated into a co-dependent world of dark fairytales, drugged into sleep much of the time and hardly going out except to stock up on the chocolate that seems to be all they eat.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Opera review: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak

My admittedly rare trips to opera haven't exactly been a famous success, but I guess there's something inevitable about me finally "getting" and opera when it involves puppets and probable cannibalism. Wattle and Daub's The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, with music and libretto by Tom and Tobi Poster, is inspired by a true story, and something of a medical mystery, from 18th century France. A young man known only as Tarrare had a constant hunger, and a bizarre digestive system that allowed him to swallow almost anything in an attempt to satisfy it. He smelled bad, never gained weight, and was a subject of fascination to surgeon Baron Percy, who tried everything he could think of to cure him but failed - the framing device is his autopsy, in which Percy is searching for a golden fork Tarrare said he swallowed and was the cause of his death - but which was never found.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Theatre review: The White Devil

The Swanamaker launched with The Duchess of Malfi and now returns to the convoluted plots of John Webster for The White Devil - a play that's always failed to make much of a lasting impression on me, and although well-done I don't think Annie Ryan's production will change that too much. Joseph Timms plays Flamineo, who's so sick of not being rich he's willing to pimp out his married sister Vittoria (Kate Stanley-Brennan) to the wealthy Duke of Brachiano (Jamie Ballard.) But Brachiano becomes so enamoured of Vittoria he has her husband and his own wife murdered so they can be together. It backfires when Vittoria is accused of the murders and sent to a home for repentant prostitutes. While the family try to get their good name back, the dead Duchess' brother Francisco (Paul Bazely) plots revenge on Brachiano and all those who helped him.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Theatre review: Run The Beast Down

I suppose if you stage as many shows as the Finborough does, themes will start to emerge in the programming, whether intentionally or not - I'm guessing "the theatre that stages plays with menacingly symbolic foxes" isn't a tagline they'll be putting on the posters, but after Foxfinder and We Know Where You Live there's a sense of déjà vu when the animals turn up again in Run The Beast Down. Director-turned-writer Titas Halder offers up a long monologue for Charlie (Ben Aldridge,) an obnoxious city trader and hipster who, in the opening scene, loses his job and his girlfriend in quick succession. In seven chapters told out of chronological order, he tells us about how things started to fall apart both at work and in his relationship; and once he's stuck at home with nothing to do, his breakdown takes the form of an obsession with the foxes screaming outside at night.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Theatre review: Sex With Strangers

A writer writing about writing in Laura Eason’s Sex With Strangers, which opens at a remote Michigan cabin that's used as a writers' retreat. It's so remote, in fact, that a snowstorm has kept most of the participants away, and only two people have shown up: Olivia (Emilia Fox) wrote a well-received novel a few years back, but bad marketing saw it flop and she now works as a teacher, writing only as a hobby. Ethan (Theo James) is ten years younger but already much more successful - a blog he wrote about his one-night stands turned into two hit books, and he's now writing the movie adaptation, but he hopes once that's done he can branch out into more literary writing. A mutual friend introduced him to Olivia's novel and he became a fan, braving the weather to meet her and find out more about the woman behind the words.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams' most overtly autobiographical play is probably my favourite, which is just as well as it's also the one I've seen most often - John Tiffany's production of The Glass Menagerie is my fourth, and comes to London after acclaimed runs in New York and Edinburgh. Tom (Michael Esper) is the narrator, unreliable by his own admission, of a memory from his youth in St Louis living with his mother and sister, his father having long sonce absconded. His sister Laura (Kate O'Flynn) has a slight limp, and in her teens was ill with pleurisy for a long time, and both have been magnified in her mind - she became shy to the point that it's now a crippling mental illness. At the play's opening, their mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) discovers that Laura has been lying about going to a typing course for the last few weeks - she had a panic attack after a couple of days and dropped out.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Theatre review: Buried Child

A visit much later in the run of a play than I usually make - in my attempt to see less theatre Buried Child had been an easy one to skip, thanks to the hefty prices, horrible Trafalgar 1 seats, and the fact that I've not yet found much to like about Sam Shepard's plays about American masculinity. Scott Elliott's production did end up getting recommended to me by various people, though, and when a decent discount turned up for an otherwise quiet week I decided to give it a go after all. I don't know that it ended up ticking the "unmissable" box for me, but this surrealism-tinged 1978 play was certainly a bigger hit with me than the previous Shepard works I've seen. The setting is a crumbling house in remote Illinois, where Dodge (Ed Harris) has long since stopped sharing a bed with his wife and, elderly and sick, now barely ever leaves the couch.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Theatre review: Experience

Dave Florez' short play Experience is about a subject I may or may not have heard of before - at one point in the play a Daily Mail story objects to it and the headline sounds familiar, but then the Daily Mail objects to pretty much everything except fascism so I could just be confusing it with something else. Sexual Surrogacy is a therapy technique originally designed to help individuals and couples with sexual problems, but it's been suggested as a way of helping rehabilitate criminals as well. Helen (Kirsty Besterman) is a therapist trying to get Dan (Christian Cooke,) who's been in a criminal psychiatric facility since he was 16, to talk to her, but he's institutionalised and unable to deal with other humans. She enlists her top sexual surrogate Amy (Charlotte Lucas) to start with something as basic as a handshake and move on to sex until he's ready to face the outside world.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Theatre review: Dublin Oldschool

Inspired by a real-life encounter that sounds full of more coincidences that anything in the play itself, Emmet Kirwan writes and performs Dublin Oldschool, the story of a drug-fuelled Bank Holiday weekend during a heatwave. Kirwan plays Jason, a record shop employee in his late twenties who holds onto the hope of becoming a DJ, and is prone to letting people take advantage of him on the promise of helping with this career change. This particular weekend he's been told he can do a set if he takes care of a visiting superstar DJ's "entertainment" needs, but that's just one of a series of incidents as he keeps trying different drugs to keep him from actually having to go home. Over the three days he keeps bumping into a homeless heroin addict: His older brother Daniel, who's returned to Dublin after several years missing.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Theatre review: The Convert

A couple of past successes will be coming back for Christopher Haydon's final season of programming at the Gate, and after the success of Eclipsed* he brings back writer Danai Gurira for an unusually long and epic play by the venue's usual standards: The Convert is set in late Victorian Rhodesia, where both Catholic and Protestant churches have made slight inroads in converting the locals. Taken from his family as a child, Chilford (Stefan Adegbola) is a devout Catholic, helping the local priest and frustrated by the fact that an old rival has been accepted to the priesthood, as he himself had hoped to be the first black African priest. He's never managed to get anyone quite as enthusiastic about the white men's religion as he is - his housekeeper Mai Tamba (Clare Perkins) goes through the motions but also performs good luck magic when he's not looking. But her niece Jekesai (Mimi Ndiweni) is a different story.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Theatre review: Raising Martha

Animal rights as a metaphor for human rights in Raising Martha, David Spicer's black comedy that throws a lot into the mix and gets varied results. Gerry (Stephen Boxer) runs a farm that breeds frogs for vivisection; as a result it's a target for animal rights protesters, and following violent attacks Gerry's all but barricaded himself in. The latest attack is a personal one: Marc (Tom Bennett) and Jago (Joel Fry) have dug up the bones of his dead mother, and are holding them hostage, to be returned if the farm is sold to an animal charity. Gerry's brother Roger (Julian Bleach) has returned to help with the crisis, but all the brothers do is argue about whether or not to sell. Meanwhile the increased police presence at the farm isn't entirely welcome, as Gerry has diversified into growing marijuana laced with hallucinogenic toad.