Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Theatre review: Every Brilliant Thing

Having toured the world but, in true Paines Plough style, largely avoided London, Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing takes up residence at Richmond’s Orange Tree, with the play’s co-writer and original performer still at the helm: Jonny Donahoe tells a story billed as being based on “true and untrue events,” about a child’s coping mechanism when his mother attempts suicide, that remains part of his life well into adulthood. Aged 7, and with his only previous experience of mortality being the death of the family dog, he’s unable to understand what would make his mother try to kill herself. He begins writing a list of every brilliant thing in the world worth living for, in the hope that it’ll help her. It can’t, of course, but regardless of how many times he outgrows it, the list ends up becoming a constant and comfort in his own life, even playing a part in how he meets his wife.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Theatre review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Getting in on the Breaking Bad theme before Bryan Cranston himself arrives on the London stage, Marianne Elliott launches her new production company with Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. But there's neither a real scientist nor a fictional drug kingpin to be seen because this is the latest play from Simon Stephens, a writer more than a little fond of cryptic titles whose connection to the subject matter is hard to pin down. 75-year-old butcher Alex (Kenneth Cranham) is minding his own business, listening to music on a bench in a train station, when 42-year-old American waitress Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) kisses him on the back of the neck. She says she couldn't help it because he reminded her of her late husband, but she soon confesses that everything she said to him at first was a lie: She's actually a primary school receptionist who's never married but has a 19-year-old son, who's moved back to New Jersey to get away from her.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Theatre review: Lucky Stiff

The first show by the Ragtime and Dessa Rose team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Lucky Stiff could be a musical version of Weekend at Bernie's - though that film came out a year after this premiered in 1988, for all I know they could both have taken inspiration from Michael Butterworth's 1983 book The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. Harry Witherspoon (Tom Elliot Reade) is a dull shoe salesman with a wish to lead a more exciting life, but no drive to actually do anything about it. But opportunity falls into his lap when a long-lost American uncle dies, leaving his only living relative $6 million. Obviously there's a catch: Tony's (Ian McCurrach) wealth came late in life, and before he died he'd booked a holiday of a lifetime to take advantage of it. He doesn't see why dying should mean he has to cancel, so in order to get the money Harry has to take Tony's stuffed corpse around Monte Carlo in a wheelchair, sticking to a strict itinerary.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Theatre review: Young Frankenstein

Mel Brooks' musical adaptation of his own classic film The Producers was a Broadway and West End smash hit, so it was no surprise that the same creative team would try to follow it up. But giving Young Frankenstein the same treatment resulted in an overblown flop, which is why it's taken a decade to cross the Atlantic. But in that time Brooks has continued to work on it, and although I don't have anything to compare it to the version that director/choreographer Susan Stroman has brought to London is, although problematic, hugely entertaining and crowd-pleasing. If one of the criticisms of the 2007 production was that it was too much of a big-budget juggernaut, that's been amended: Although there's a large cast with a vast amount of costume changes (designed by William Ivey Long,) Beowulf Boritt's set tends for a more old-fashioned look with curtain backdrops, and the whole show has a music-hall feel.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Theatre review: The Seagull

Despite the bleak turn it takes in its final act, The Seagull makes by far the best case for Chekhov’s claim that many of his plays are comedies, and Sean Holmes’ production makes a particularly good example: We laugh at the characters’ flaws and vanities, before the same things turn around and destroy them. Irina (Lesley Sharp) is a famous actress on one of her rare visits back to her childhood home, a working farm whose running she’s passed over entirely to her brother Peter (Nicolas Tennant) and his staff. Still living there is her son Konstantin (Brian Vernel,) an aspiring writer who, in the opening act, is preparing to premiere a surreal new piece of theatre he’s written to family and friends. It stars his neighbour Nina (Adelayo Adedayo,) whom he’s desperately in love with, so a lot rides for him on the performance going well – but his mother has other ideas.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Theatre review: Victory Condition

It’s not often a Chloe Lamford set fails to be striking and interesting, and she provides another memorable design for the Royal Court’s nightly rep, seeming utterly appropriate to both very different plays: The large Downstairs stage is filled with exposed scaffolding that reaches well into the wings, flies and below the stage, with the actors confined to one large white room in the middle of it all. For B, this maze of dangerous-looking metal exploding out of the centre could be a metaphor for a play whose characters are preparing to plant a nail-bomb. Now, for the second play, a much more luxurious, modern flat takes up the central playing area, and the exposed chaos that surrounds it makes a good clue for what Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition does. Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Jonjo O’Neill are a nameless couple returning home to have dinner and relax for the evening before going to bed.

Theatre review: B

The Royal Court is aiming to produce a great volume of plays over its current season, in part by creating temporary performance spaces, in part by producing short shows so they can play two in repertory in a single night in the larger Downstairs Theatre. The first of the two alternating one-acters is Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón's surreal meditation on terrorism and general dissatisfaction, B. The "B" word that must never be said is "bomb," which is what teenagers Marcela (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are planning to plant in a bank as a mission statement - although what statement they're actually trying to make is hard to pin them down to. In an abandoned flat they arrange to meet with José Miguel (Paul Kaye), a bomb-maker with decades of experience, but there's a number of obstacles to them actually carrying out their plan.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Theatre review: A Day by the Sea

Southwark Playhouse’s publicity is keen to label rediscovered 1950s playwright N C Hunter as “the English Chekhov,” and if A Day by the Sea is a fair representation of his work it’s a comparison he would have been actively seeking. There’s a family and extended group of hangers-on, reuniting at a home in the country; wistful hopes that generations in the future will have eradicated the problems that plague its characters daily; the characters moping around long after the story’s come to a natural end; and even the requisite alcoholic doctor. As a child, Frances Farrar was taken in by the Anson family in Dorset when she was orphaned, but while she remembers her time there happily she more or less lost touch for twenty years after she moved out. Now, widowed from her first husband in World War II and divorced from her second – who then attempted suicide – Frances (Alix Dunmore) is invited back there with her own children for the school holidays, to sit out the scandal.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Theatre review: The Busy World is Hushed

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official opening is on Tuesday.

In Keith Bunin's The Busy World is Hushed, a woman struggles to prioritise the men in her life, two of whom are dead - one of them for the last two millennia. Hannah (Kazia Pelka) is an Episcopalian minister and bible scholar, whose husband drowned (possibly a suicide) a couple of months before she gave birth to their only son. Thomas (Michael James) has grown up restless and easily distracted, and has been disappearing from home for months at a time ever since he was 16, trying new ventures in life or just wandering out into the wilderness. He's now 26, older than his father was when he died, which has led him back home to delve through his papers and try to find out about a man his mother will tell him very little about. Hannah is worried he’ll leave again as soon as he finds what he’s looking for, but she’s got a plan to make him stick around a bit longer.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Theatre review: Dido, Queen of Carthage

No good deed goes unpunished for Dido, Queen of Carthage in the latest Christopher Marlowe play to get an RSC revival in the Swan. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) leads the only surviving Trojan warriors on an expedition to create a new colony in Italy. On the way they're shipwrecked on the coast of Libya but Aeneas has friends in high places - his mother is the goddess Venus (Ellie Beaven,) who ensures everyone survives, even if their ships don't. There's more good luck because Libya was an ally of Troy's, and Queen Dido (Chipo Chung) greets the men as honoured guests, offering them lives of honour and luxury in Carthage. This still isn't enough for Venus, though, who wants Dido to give her son her own fleet to replace the one he lost. Being the goddess of love she knows just the way to do it, making Dido fall in love with Aeneas and pledge him her entire navy. The catch is she wants him to stay and be her king.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Theatre review: Macbeth (Ninagawa Company)

The much-loved Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa died last year, not long after reviving his signature 1987 production of Macbeth, which was the one that made his name in this country. So it was a natural choice of tribute to him to tour that production internationally again. An all-Japanese cast is led by Masachika Ichimura as Macbeth, the Scottish nobleman instrumental in crushing a rebellion, and showered with honours for it. But a supernatural vision has promised him even more power, and once he shares his ambitions with his wife (Yuko Tanaka) he commits himself to speeding up the process – by murdering the king, framing the heirs, and assuming the throne himself. But ill-gotten power is hard to hold on to, and as armies build to depose him, his paranoia leads him back to the witches, and more deliberately misleading prophecies.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Theatre review: What Shadows

I can’t wait until a time when I can go months without seeing a play about a dark chapter in history, and finding it painfully relevant to the present day. We’re not there yet though, and so Roxana Silbert transfers her Birmingham production of What Shadows to the Park Theatre, in which playwright Chris Hannan looks at one of the most notorious instances of a British politician fanning racism. After decades playing Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid is about as qualified as you can get to play Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician whose hate-filled “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham made him a by-word for racism. In 1967, with the Tories in opposition, Powell starts to see himself on the one hand as the man to get them into power, and on the other marginalised by his own party, who view him as a crank who gives shit-stirring populist speeches to regional Conservative clubs.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Theatre review: Le Grand Mort

Sex and death have always been uncomfortably linked in people’s minds, and that’s an idea that Stephen Clark’s Le Grand Mort opens with; 85 minutes later I’m not sure it’s made any further point. Clark wrote it as a rare dramatic vehicle for Julian Clary, who plays Michael, cooking pasta and monologuing – in verse – about famous deaths from history. He’s particularly interested in ones with a grotesque story behind the death (despite him debunking the story of Catherine the Great being crushed to death by the horse she was fucking, it gets repeated a number of times,) or those that have either fact or urban legend attached to them about the corpse being subject to some kind of necrophiliac attention. Eventually we’ll find out the source of his obsession is mother issues that go from the Oedipal to the downright Sir Jimmy, but for now he’s focusing on his guest for the evening.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Theatre review: King Lear (Minerva, Chichester)

Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion. Parklife!

Ten years ago I'd only ever seen one King Lear, because my first production had stuck with me so much I was afraid of seeing one I liked less and spoiling the memory. I'm now well into double figures, and what made me first break my own ban was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Ian McKellen, then pushing seventy, play the title role. Well I guess there's no such thing as once-in-a-lifetime, as McKellen was rumoured never to have been quite happy with that production and especially the cavernous venues it played. Now, pushing eighty but still at the top of his game, he gets another go in Chichester's intimate Minerva theatre. So there's something of the vanity project to making this such an exclusive event*, and it's almost a surprise - a great one - that Jonathan Munby's production is among the best I've seen, with a luxury cast including two Big Favourites Round These Parts as the warring Eds.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Theatre review: After the Rehearsal / Persona

It would be far too time-consuming and expensive for the Barbican to send someone to every single audience member’s home to scream “WE HATE YOU!” into their faces, but they’ve come up with a more straightforward way of getting the message across: When scheduling a Belgian director’s Dutch version of two Swedish films that comes in at over three hours, why not make the start time 7:45pm? Also, you can make tannoy announcements that it’ll start dead on time, which the audience dutifully follow, and then start five minutes late anyway. That way anyone seeing Ivo van Hove’s ponderous double bill After the Rehearsal / Persona can be tired and a bit grumpy going into a claustrophobic, impenetrable evening, downright sleepy by its last hour and not much the wiser about any of it by the end. The bit where Jan Versweyveld’s set fell apart and splashed into a lake was good though.

After the Rehearsal by Ingmar Bergman in a version by Karst Woudstra, and Persona by Ingmar Bergman in a version by Peter Van Kraaij, is booking until the 30th of September at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Theatre review: Ramona Tells Jim

In a story that jumps back and forth fifteen years, Sophie Wu has put together what feels like parts of two different plays, one of which works much better than the other. Ramona Tells Jim takes place in a remote part of coastal Scotland – “the shittest village in Scotland” according to Jim (Joe Bannister.) At age 17, he’s a loner who likes collecting crustacea and dreams of becoming a marine biologist. Meeting Ramona (Ruby Bentall) will make for a memorable few days but will also be partly responsible for thwarting his ambition: An awkward 16-year-old English schoolgirl on a geography field trip, she’s his first romance, but early on in the play we get a clue that a violent event will sour the memory of their relationship. 15 years later Ramona turns up again unexpectedly, first on Facebook, then on Jim’s doorstep.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Theatre review: The Lie

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Official critics are invited this Wednesday.

The critics may well get to see one of the leads performing most of the play script-in-hand as Alexander Hanson, a late replacement for an ill James Dreyfus, was at today’s performance only off-book for two of the play’s scenes. This is for the latest from Florian Zeller, who seems to like his plays to come in pairs: The Truth is followed up by The Lie, another comedy of infidelity, which even has its characters share the names of the earlier play’s quartet (although they don’t actually appear to be the same characters, unless they’re alternate-universe versions.) And as The Truth was about lies, then The Lie is about truths, and passing off the truth as a lie. If that all seems a bit convoluted and circular you should see the actual dialogue, which at one point I thought had actually turned into a real-life version of the famous “loop” scene from The Play That Goes Wrong.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Theatre review: Coriolanus (RSC / RST & Barbican)

Season director Angus Jackson returns for the fourth and last of the RSC's Roman plays, and although Coriolanus is set earlier than the other three, designer Robert Innes Hopkins eschews the togas of the middle two plays, to match the modern dress of Titus Andronicus. In fact this also starts with a rioting gang in hoodies, and since it will actually play first when they all transfer to London, it annoyed me a bit that it'll look there like Blanche McIntyre copied the idea. Fortunately there was less to annoy me about the rest of the production, in which Sope Dirisu takes on the least likeable of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Caius Martius, later given the title Coriolanus after one of his many military victories, is a one-man Roman army, raised as such by his batshit bloodthirsty mother Volumnia (Haydn Gwynne.)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Theatre review: Wings

Just like a plane, a stage, a sanitary towel or a bucket of fried chicken, Juliet Stevenson has Wings in Arthur Kopit’s 1979 Broadway play. The Young Vic’s revival sees her reunite with director Natalie Abrahami, who has a very specific vision for this story of a highly active older woman relearning how to interact with the world after suffering a stroke. Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, who not only piloted vintage planes but used to do wing-walks on them. But we meet her just as she has her stroke and she’s thrown into confusion, feeling at a disconnect as if she’s floating over the world. It’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative that Abrahami takes literally, having Stevenson fly on wires above the stage, initially unable to touch down on the ground.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Theatre review: Boudica

Closing this year’s Globe summer season is a new play that playwright Tristan Bernays has crafted to fit in very well with the old ones that make up most of the theatre’s repertory. And it’s based around a character who it’s strange to think none of the original Globe’s playwrights tackled, the only reason I can think of being the ban on female actors meaning too big a burden being placed on a young boy; because Boudica has all the elements Jacobethan theatre liked to get stuck into. Set during Nero’s reign, the Roman Empire occupies Britain with the help of some of the former tribal kings. Known as client-kings, they pay taxes and stop their people from rebelling in return for getting to keep their titles and lands. The play begins with the death of a leading client-king, whose widow Boudica (Gina McKee) expects to inherit half his land as per the agreement he made with the Romans.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Theatre review: Oslo

Getting a quick transfer from a hit Broadway run to the West End, J.T. Rogers’ Oslo first spends a couple of weeks at the Lyttelton; Bartlett Sher’s production gets an all-new British cast to tell the behind-the-scenes story of historic Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It’s the early 1990s and Middle East peace talks are dominated by the Americans, who insist on a negotiating style that puts all demands on the table – it’s never yielded results, and attacks continue from both sides. Norwegian sociologist Terje Rød-Larsen (Toby Stephens) believes he’s come up with a better model, based around smaller groups of negotiators getting to know each other as people, and chipping away slowly at concessions. Terje’s wife Mona Juul (Lydia Leonard) works at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and helps set up a back-channel between senior Israelis and PLO members, behind the Americans’ backs.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Theatre review: Doubt, a Parable

The Catholic Church is famous for its choirboy-abusing priests, but a lesser-known fact is that there’s also a system of religious beliefs attached to it. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a Parable uses the former to look into questions of the latter, in a story set in a New York convent school in 1964. Headmistress Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet) is a stern disciplinarian who’s fiercely opposed to change, ball-point pens, the song “Frosty the Snowman,” and either teachers or students actually enjoying their lessons. Her mission to crush all the joy out of young teacher Sister James (Clare Latham) has to be interrupted as she needs her help to investigate the school priest Father Flynn (Jonathan Chambers,) whom she suspects of taking an inappropriate interest in the pupils. The school has just taken on its first-ever black student, and Flynn seems keen to get particularly close to him.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Theatre review: Follies

Follies is probably the best-known Stephen Sondheim musical I hadn’t yet seen, and the sheer scale of Dominic Cooke’s production at the National suggests why it’s a risky proposition for any smaller theatre to take on. Between 1918 and the early 1940s, Weismann’s Follies were a Broadway staple, but the story takes place in 1971, and the theatre where they played is being demolished to make way for offices. On the building’s last night, Weismann invites the show’s former stars to the site for a farewell party and to reminisce about their time in the limelight. In Vicki Mortimer’s striking design the theatre is already half-demolished, and what remains of it is haunted by the ghosts of the characters’ younger selves, who recreate the routines from their heyday, and watch the people they’ll turn into in curiosity and sometimes horror.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Theatre review: Edward II

A few years ago Ricky Dukes directed a production of Dido, Queen of Carthage I enjoyed, and now he and Lazarus Theatre return to Christopher Marlowe for a heavily edited and adapted version of Edward II. Luke Ward-Wilkinson plays the titular king, who in the opening scene learns of his father’s death and his own accession to the throne, and responds by immediately recalling his banished lover Gaveston (Bradley Frith,) much to the displeasure of his nobles. Whether Gaveston is at court or in exile, he’s a constant distraction to the king, and with conflict at home and abroad his attention is needed for the safety of England. At least that’s their story: Beneath the rhetoric the rebellion led by Mortimer (Jamie O’Neill) looks more like an opportunistic grab at power from a weak and distracted king.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Theatre review: Gypsy Queen

Writer/performer Rob Ward seems to have found a niche for himself with plays about gay sportsmen; a few years ago he co-wrote and acted in monologue Away From Home, about a gay footballer in a secret relationship, and now he takes on solo writing duties while sharing the acting with Ryan Clayton in a story where the relationship is still secret, but the sport’s much more up-front about its aggressive side. In Gypsy Queen Clayton plays Dane “The Pain” Samson, a promising boxer, openly gay in his father’s gym where he trains, and where everyone pretty much accepts this; but wary about his sexuality being known more generally, and worried that one sports reporter in particular keeps sniffing around it. Ward is “Gorgeous” George O’Connell, from an Irish traveller background, who bare-knuckle boxes in pub car parks until Dane’s father talent-spots him and invites him to turn professional.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Theatre review: Knives in Hens

Wheel! Of! Misfortune!

After joyless South African director Yaël Farber royally shat the bed at the National a few months ago, she was lucky to have her next London gig already lined up, or I don’t think we’d have seen her here again for some time. In any case I saw her production of Knives in Hens at the Donmar as giving her a last chance before deciding if I just don’t see what others apparently see in her, and putting her on the same shelf as Samuel Beckett. David Harrower’s play is set in a non-specifically pre-industrial North of England, a place dominated by work and a combination of austere religion and superstition. Judith Roddy plays an unnamed Young Woman (significantly, only one person in the play gets to know her name,) married to ploughman Pony William (Christian Cooke,) so called because he may or may not fuck his plough-horses.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Theatre review: King Lear (Shakespeare's Globe)

It's likely to be overshadowed very shortly by Ian McKellen's return to the title role, but the Globe's production of King Lear delivers a clear, if not particularly distinctive telling of the story. Kevin R McNally plays Lear, a king who decides to go into retirement, hoping to maintain all the perks of rule with none of the responsibilities. It doesn't work that way though, as he discovers when he divides his kingdom between his older daughters Goneril (Emily Bruni) and Regan (Sirine Saba,) cutting off his youngest Cordelia (Anjana Vasan) when she fails to flatter him to his liking. Inevitably he finds he's trusted the wrong daughters and as his mental and physical health start to deteriorate he's cast out into the wilderness, while around him storms rage and England breaks out into civil war.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Theatre review: Loot

What Joe Orton did to farce in What The Butler Saw, he does to black comedy in Loot: Deconstruct the genre by taking it to its logical extreme, so we get jokes about rape and child prostitutes, and the naked corpse of an old woman being unceremoniously dragged around the stage. But despite being the first UK staging to restore Orton’s original text with all the censored stuff back in place, what Michael Fentiman’s 50th anniversary production ends up most memorable for is the sharpness of the dialogue. McLeavy’s (Ian Redford) wife died three days ago, and her body is laid out for the last time in their house. Last night his son Hal (Sam Frenchum) robbed a bank with his best friend/boyfriend Dennis (Calvin Demba,) and the loot is stored in a cupboard. Then Inspector Truscott (Christopher Fulford) arrives, demanding to search the house.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Theatre review: Against

2008’s Now or Later has made me look forward to Christopher Shinn’s work, but so far none of his other plays have lived up to that one for me. His latest premieres at the Almeida in a production by Ian Rickson, and tries to deal with huge issues of faith and the human capacity for violence, as a self-made billionaire believes he’s been given a message from god to go out into the world and solve America’s violence problem. Ben Whishaw is no stranger to playing messianic figures so he’s a natural match to Against’s protagonist Luke, a tech and aerospace giant who leaves behind all his companies when he claims to have been given a divine message to “go where the violence is.” He interprets this vague missive as meaning he should travel to the scenes of violent crimes and stay there long after the press have moved on to the next story, collecting feelings and reactions from the survivors and compiling their stories on a website.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Theatre review: The Majority

Although the current policy at the Dorfman is not to play shows in rep, Mosquitoes gets a bit of a break as another show uses its in-the-round set to tell a different kind of story – although there’s still buzzing insects involved, as The Majority’s design (by Jemima Robinson) features a lot of bees and honeycomb motifs. It’s the latest play by Rob Drummond, aka that bloke I shot that time, who keeps an audience participation element but spreads it out equally this time: The last few years have been marked by hugely impactful votes on binary, not always well-defined choices, and this is the structure The Majority is based around. As with the recent Terror, every audience member is given a keypad which will record their vote on a number of yes/no questions posed by Drummond. Most of them will serve to give an idea of the audience’s moral position but a couple will affect where his story goes and how it’s told.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Theatre review: Dangling

Not actually the story of Mr and Mrs Gling’s son Daniel, Abigail Hood’s Dangling is inspired by missing persons stories, and particularly by the families left behind, not knowing if they’ll ever have closure on what happened to their loved one. Hood herself plays Charlotte, a prostitute hired by Greg (Jasper Jacob,) to dress up like his missing teenage daughter. He doesn’t actually want sex from her, but his actions don’t exactly help quash rumours that his daughter ran away because he abused her; nor does an accusation by some of her friends, whom he claims he was only talking to as a way of feeling close to the missing Carly. The real reason for Carly’s disappearance is never revealed, and Hood’s play leans towards Greg’s innocence, but these London-based scenes alternate with another story set in Oldham, and here the reason why a young girl might want to vanish without a trace is made all too clear.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Theatre review: Coming Clean

Right now you can bookend Kevin Elyot’s playwriting career by travelling one stop on the Victoria Line: As the run ends on his final play, Twilight Song, in Finsbury Park, over in Islington the King’s Head revives his 1982 debut, Coming Clean; and taken together they do make it look like My Night With Reg was, if not a fluke, at least an outlier. American writer and lecturer Greg (Jason Nwoga) and lazy wannabe writer Tony (Lee Knight) have been together for five years and are happy together if a bit set in their ways. These ways do include a bit of extramarital action, though – we’re in the pre-AIDS era here and they’ve got an agreement that they can sleep with other people as long as it’s confined to one-night stands. This gets complicated when they hire an unemployed actor, Robert (Tom Lambert) as a house cleaner, and Greg’s apparent impatience with him conceals an attraction.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Theatre review: Apologia

Add to the list of things I never realised I needed to see: Alicia Florrick’s mom, Martha Jones, Fit Dad and my first Malvolio, all on stage together. Plus the woman who woke Peter Hall up from his nap that time, although she’s got a bit better at the acting since then. Following The Pride a couple of years ago, Jamie Lloyd revives another Alexi Kaye Campbell play at Trafalgar 1, with Stockard Channing taking on the role of esteemed art historian and 1960s political activist Kristin in Apologia. The setup is the well-worn dinner-party-from-hell format, as Kristin hosts family and friends to celebrate both her birthday, and the publication of her latest book, also titled Apologia. This one’s marketed as a memoir of her life, which makes the fact that it doesn’t even mention the existence of her two sons (both played by Joseph Millson) an omission which seems to distill their relationship.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Theatre review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾

After an initial run in Leicester, where Sue Townsend’s much-loved series of books is set, Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary’s (music and lyrics) musical version of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ has been rewritten and now lands at the Menier Chocolate Factory with an eye on giving Matilda a run for its money. And it could well manage it as Cleary, Brunger and director Luke Sheppard have pitched the show between nostalgia for the adults and silliness to keep kids occupied, in a production that kept an audience of both captivated this afternoon. On January 1st 1981 Adrian (Benjamin Lewis, alternating with Ilan Galkoff and Samuel Menhinick) decides to start the titular diary for what will turn out to be an eventful year, as his parents Pauline (Kelly Price) and George (Dean Chisnall) separate after Pauline has an affair with the next-door neighbour.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Theatre review: Girl From The North Country

If a Meat Loaf jukebox musical at the ENO seemed like the summer’s most eccentric bit of programming, how about a Bob Dylan jukebox musical at the Old Vic? Conor McPherson writes and directs Girl from the North Country, which I hadn’t initially planned to see but some very interesting casting convinced me otherwise. Cast mostly with actors-who-can-sing rather than predominantly musical theatre actors, I already knew the likes of Sheila Atim, Bronagh Gallagher, Jack Shalloo, Debbie Kurup, Michael Shaeffer and Karl Queensborough could sing, but there’s also a number of pleasant surprises in a show that, music aside, I didn’t quite know what to make of. Set in Depression-era Duluth, the story centres on a guest house run by Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds,) whose wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has early-onset dementia, and whose main relief from the financial and personal pressures he faces is an affair with one of his guests, Mrs Neilsen (Kurup.)

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Theatre review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In a Young Vic production that, for the first time, skips the Young Vic entirely and goes straight to the West End (and its prices,) the theatre follows up Benedict Andrews’ revolving Streetcar Named Desire with another of the most famous Tennessee Williams plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We’re still in a sweltering part of the American South (Tennessee itself, this time,) but unlike most Williams characters nobody here is strapped for cash: Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) owns the largest plantation in the state, and his whole family have gathered to celebrate his 65th birthday. What most of the family knows but he doesn’t is that this is his last birthday: The tests he was told came back negative actually revealed he has terminal cancer and very little time left. We see the action from the perspective of alcoholic younger son Brick (Jack O’Connell) and his wife Maggie (Sienna Miller.)

Monday, 31 July 2017

Theatre review: Road

In a rare instance of the Royal Court revisiting a past work, John Tiffany directs a 30th anniversary production of Road, Jim Cartwright’s slice of life in an unnamed Lancashire town. It seems a rather pointed revival of a play which comes down hard on Thatcher’s Britain, as despite the – nostalgic and funny by turns – period trappings it still feels relevant, its characters going out to get drunk and try to pull, covering up their desperation at the dead end their lives are in. Some have been led to unusual extremes, like Mike Noble’s Skin-Lad, a Buddhist skinhead, or Joey (Shane Zaza) and Clare (Faye Marsay,) dying in bed on hunger strike over something they can’t quite articulate. Most have more familiar stories of trying to cope though, and unemployed ex-sailor Scullery (Lemn Sissay) offers to be the audience’s tour guide over one typical Saturday night from dusk to dawn.

Theatre review: Queers Part 2

A companion piece to Friday's one-off performance at the Old Vic, Max Webster joins Mark Gatiss on directing duties for the concluding four monologues from BBC4's Queers series. Once again the stories take us through the decades before and after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, beginning during the Blitz with Keith Jarrett's The Safest Spot in Town. Kadiff Kirwan plays a dapper West Indian who immigrated to London a few years earlier, finding a more insidious, two-faced form of racism than he'd expected. The arrival of German bombers has created, for a while at least, a more inclusive atmosphere as everyone's up against a common enemy. But, in what is probably the slightest of the eight short plays, he finds it hard to forget being turned away from the places that now want his custom, and goes cottaging instead - a life-changing decision.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe)

Lots of hey! but no nonnny nonny in the Globe's latest Much Ado About Nothing, as Matthew Dunster takes the play's opening, with soldiers returning triumphant from a battle, as his cue to set the action during the Mexican Revolution in 1914. A group of fighters take a break at the home of Leonato (Martin Marquez,) where young soldier Claudio (Marcello Cruz - Hispanic Daniel Radcliffe, amirite?) falls for Leonato's daughter Hero (Anya Chalotra.) As the soldiers wait for the wedding to be hastily arranged, they amuse themselves by tricking the battling exes Benedick (Matthew Needham) and Beatrice (Beatriz Romilly) into getting back together, by convincing each that the other is desperately in love with them.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Theatre review: Queers Part 1

It hasn't been marked quite as ubiquitously on stage as the centenary of the First World War, the 4th centenary of Shakespeare's death or even the King James Bible were, but theatres are now starting to step up the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Old Vic has paired up with the BBC, whose Queer Britain season includes the upcoming Queers on BBC4, eight monologues curated by Mark Gatiss giving snapshots of gay life before and after decriminalisation, to give each one of the short plays a one-off live performance. About half of the performers from the TV version have been able to reprise their roles, with the rest recast, and Gatiss shares directing duties with Joe Murphy on Part 1 as well as writing the first of the four stories in this first collection.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre review: Nassim

Currently previewing at the Bush Studio before officially opening in Edinburgh, Nassim features a format I’m seeing more and more of: A performer who knows as little about the piece going in as the audience does. Nassim Soleimanpour’s play, directed by Omar Elerian and designed by Rhys Jarman, features a new performer every night, and like the Royal Court did with Manwatching, the Bush are releasing a list of the performers in advance, but not revealing who will appear at which performance until it actually begins. The performer - Khalid Abdalla tonight - is confronted with a screen on which flash cards are projected, with the script for him to read out, and instructions for him – and occasionally the audience – to carry out. Soleimanpour himself is turning the pages backstage, and about halfway through the play the playwright joins the performer onstage.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Theatre review: Mosquitoes

After the success of Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play Mosquitoes gets its premiere at the National Theatre, with Rufus Norris directing, a Katrina Lindsay set full of bells and whistles and spectacular projections, and most of all the central roles filled by two Future Dame Olivias: Williams plays Alice, a particle physicist working at CERN in the buildup to the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time. Colman is her sister Jenny, the black sheep in a family full of scientists, as she’s superstitious and much more likely to believe any unfounded rumour she reads online than empirically proven facts. In particular, she believed the scare stories about the MMR vaccine causing autism and refused to vaccinate her baby daughter, with tragic results that kick off the story: In need of some support Jenny is visiting her sister in Switzerland, along with their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer.)

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre review: Nina - a story about me and Nina Simone

Josette Bushell-Mingo and Dritëro Kasapi’s extraordinarily angry piece Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone is closer to performance art than theatre: Bushell-Mingo starts the show in an afro wig, describing the jubilant atmosphere leading up to a Nina Simone concert in 1969, and the suggestion is that she’s going to impersonate Simone and perform some of the songs from that set. But this is more about Nina Simone the activist than the performer, and having barely started the first song Bushell-Mingo finds she can’t carry on, because the inequality Simone was fighting against back then is still present today – Simone wrote a song called "Mississippi Goddam" and Bushell-Mingo is all too aware that with anti-black violence continuing to be disproportionate to this day, the song could just as easily be renamed “Ferguson Goddam.”

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Theatre review: Disco Pigs

I almost skipped the 20th anniversary production of Disco Pigs because I felt like I’d seen a version at the Young Vic quite recently; as it turns out that production was actually six years ago and besides, casting a Harry Potter actor I hadn’t “collected” on stage before is always a good way of making me stump up for a ticket. Enda Walsh’s two-hander uses a mixture of strong Cork accents and dialect with a convoluted, poetic style of speech that channels Joyce, Beckett and A Clockwork Orange to tell a story of two teenagers, Darren aka Pig (Colin Campbell) and Sinead aka Runt (Evanna Lynch,) who were born a second apart in the same hospital. Ever since being placed on adjacent tables they’ve been closer than real siblings, to the point in fact of isolating themselves from their families, speaking in their own language and dealing with the outside world mainly with violence.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Theatre review: Twilight Song

Kevin Elyot’s final play is called, appropriately enough, Twilight Song, and it’s a short, distinctly odd one that left me with the suspicion he hadn’t quite finished working on it when he died. Alternating between the 1960s and the present day in the same suburban London villa, it was bought, largely thanks to a cash gift from a wealthy uncle, by Isabella (Bryony Hannah) and her meek new husband Basil (Paul Higgins.) Partly due to events that unfold in the play, the improvements they planned to make to it never happened and by the time their son Barry (also Higgins) is in his fifties, the place seems to be falling apart and he’s thinking of selling it. Estate agent Skinner (Adam Garcia) is optimistic that it can fetch a good price regardless, but he may just be buttering him up because he supplements his income with a side-line in prostitution, and he’s spotted a likely customer in the lonely and repressed Barry.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Theatre review: Dessert

Oliver Cotton’s flawed but fun, issue-based thriller Dessert is another of those plays that hinges on a major plot twist, this time coming about 20 minutes in – in fact much of the publicity has revolved around Cotton and director Trevor Nunn tying themselves up in knots trying to discuss the play without actually mentioning what it’s about. So once again I’ll try to keep things vague in the opening paragraph before getting spoilery after the text cut. Certainly the promotional image of an unevenly cut cake gives a clue that we’re in for a story about the 5% who own 95% of the world’s wealth, and Rachel Stone’s set is an opulent dining room whose walls are covered with priceless paintings. This is just another room in the house of Hugh (Michael Simkins,) a company director notorious for liquidating a struggling company causing investors to lose their savings, while he got away with a £5 million bonus. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Theatre review: Bodies

With Future Dame Billie Piper about to reprise her Yerma at the Young Vic, over at the Royal Court we have another childless woman taking a much more pragmatically 21st century approach to the problem. She’s not yet got the profile of someone like James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood or Polly Stenham but ever since her debut with Mogadishu* Vivienne Franzmann has been delivering such consistently good work she’s as much of a must-see playwright for me as any of them. In Bodies the woman desperate for a child is Clem (Justine Mitchell,) who after five miscarriages has opted for surrogacy. Her husband Josh (Jonathan McGuinness, reading in the role after Brian Ferguson got ill,) will provide the sperm, the eggs come from an unknown woman in Russia, while actually carrying the baby will be Lakshmi (Salma Hoque) in India, where surrogates have very few rights.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Theatre review: The Mentor

I think last year’s great revival of Amadeus made the prospect of seeing the film version’s star, F Murray Abraham, on stage even more of a draw for me. So it’s a good job his performance in The Mentor lives up to expectations, because little else about Daniel Kehlmann’s play was really memorable enough to stay with me past the Vaudeville’s front doors. Kehlmann is apparently a huge name in Germany right now, and being the first to bring him to the UK are the team of translator Christopher Hampton and director Laurence Boswell, who in recent years also introduced us to Florian Zeller. And there is more of a French than German aesthetic to Polly Sullivan’s design, a country garden inside a white box, with chairs shaped like human hands as a clue that pretension is welcome here – a retreat owned by an arts charity that pairs established names with promising newcomers to develop new work.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

A delayed arrival in the West End for Broadway star Audra McDonald – she was due to appear in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill a couple of years ago, but the entire run got cancelled because she was pregnant. Now she finally gets to take the stage at Wyndham’s – the same theatre she was due to play in the first place – and demonstrate why she couldn’t have been replaced. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play recreates an evening in the titular Philadelphia bar, where Billie Holiday (McDonald) performed in 1959, a few months before her death. She has mixed feelings about playing there – she loves the bar and has friends there but Philadelphia itself is where she pled guilty to her first husband’s drug charges expecting to be let off easy, and ended up in prison for a year instead. By the time she takes to the stage she’s already a few drinks down and she’s never too far from a full glass of neat gin the whole evening, but this is far from a unique reaction to a city she doesn’t feel comfortable in.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Theatre review: Superhero

In most ways the temporary Southwark Playhouse venue at Elephant and Castle has been an improvement on the one they’ll be returning to next year, but I can’t say I don’t miss the London Bridge one in the summer, when the fact that the smaller auditorium, The Vault, was so far into the network of railway tunnels meant it was cool, even in the middle of a heatwave. No such luck at The Little, which has no air conditioning and was pretty unbearable tonight – in fact I’m not sure how well I can even review Superhero because my main take from it was wondering if I’d make it to the end of the 90 minutes without passing out. I suppose one thing you can take in its favour is that I didn’t escape into the night, which is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn Michael Rouse, the performer in this one-man musical by Michael Conley (book,) Joseph Finlay (music) and Richy Hughes (lyrics.)