Monday, 26 June 2017

Theatre review: Mr Gillie

Last year the Finborough’s search for forgotten hits of the past found Scottish playwright James Bridie, whose black comedy Dr Angelus proved well worth another look; now the Sunday-to-Tuesday alternate slot is given up to another of Bridie’s West End hits of the ‘50s, and while Mr Gillie hasn’t stood the test of time anywhere near as well, the amiable little tragicomedy has its moments. Perhaps its most interesting facet is the very premise, which takes a more critical look at a dramatic cliché that’s remained popular long after the play’s 1950 premiere: That of the inspirational teacher who instils an ambition in his students to transcend the limitations they were born into. That’s been Mr Gillie’s (Andy Secombe) aim all his years as headmaster in a small Scottish mining town, and it’s made him much-beloved of his ex-pupils, and hugely unpopular with the school board. And it’s hard not to see the latter’s point, because over the course of his career Gillie has found two students in particular who showed extraordinary talent: Both took his advice to pursue them, and in both cases their lives took such a turn for the worse they’re still spoken of in hushed tones now.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Theatre review: Terror

Billed as international event theatre and certainly designed as such, Ferdinand von Schirach's Terror has played over 1000 performances in Germany and been seen in numerous countries, with the Lyric Hammersmith now giving it its UK premiere in David Tushingham's translation. It's a courtroom drama with the audience serving as jury on an ever-topical case involving terrorism: A passenger plane carrying 164 civilians was hijacked, with it looking increasingly likely it would crash into a stadium filled to its 70,000 capacity. A hastily drafted and redrafted law allows for the plane to be shot down to save the majority, but as it stands only the Minister for Defence can give the order, and he refuses to do so. Faced with the reality, fighter pilot Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) took it upon himself to sacrifice the plane and save the 70,000. Having gone against orders, he's now charged with mass murder and faces life in prison.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth

I had a feeling that Daniel Evans taking over as Artistic Director of Chichester's theatres would make me break my previous rule of not making the trip to West Sussex; and with Ian McKellen revisiting King Lear there later this year it proved a bit too tempting. So in for a penny, in for a pound, I ended up booking three shows in the two theatres, and why not when there's the chance to see Brian J. Smith in another Tennesse Williams play only months after his memorable performance in The Glass Menagerie? This time he's Chance Wayne, the wannabe actor, more realistically a hustler, in Sweet Bird of Youth. A couple of weeks before we first meet him, Chance hooked up with a woman calling herself the Princess Kosmonopolis, who 's paying for a luxury lifestyle in return for his discreet companionship.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Theatre review: Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult was one of the shows that catapulted Kneehigh from Westcountry touring company to major name in UK theatre, and as Emma Rice's second and final summer season at Shakespeare's Globe has a "Summer of Love" theme, her take on the mediaeval romance takes the South Bank in as part of a new tour. Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a French prince allied to King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd,) who helped the king defend against an Irish invasion. As part of his reparation, Mark demands the Irish king's sister Yseult as a bride, and sends Tristan to collect her. Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) swears eternal hatred for the man who killed her brother, but also brings along a love potion to help her get on with her new husband. One mix-up later and the two are in love, or at the very least passionate lust.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Theatre review: Working

Studs Terkel has been one of America’s favourite radio hosts and journalists since 1945, and is known especially for his interviews with regular people and the books he’s published collecting them. Working, which unsurprisingly looks at people from the perspective of their jobs, is the most famous of these, but is still an unlikely subject for a musical, and Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s adaptation is in its turn an unusual musical: In its current form, only three of the songs are by the Wicked composer himself, as Schwartz asked a number of other writers and musicians to contribute different voices. Craig Carnelia is the most frequent contributor with four songs, James Taylor and Micki Grant each provide two, and there’s one by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. Since its 1977 debut it’s been further rejigged, so now it also boasts the current biggest name in musical theatre with two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Theatre review: The Ugly One

It’s nine years, almost to the day, since I saw the Royal Court’s original production of Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, and it’s a show I remember surprisingly well. This revival is directed by Roy Alexander Weise, who after last year’s The Mountaintop seems to have similar taste to me in plays from the last decade or so; and I was particularly interested to see what he did with it because the original staging is one thing that particularly stood out in my memory – because it was virtually non-existent. Well Weise hasn’t followed suit, but his production’s still comparatively minimal despite the ubiquitous video element – here it gets projected onto Loren Elstein’s raised stage floor, a sort of enormous desk that sometimes doubles as a platform for the public presentations its characters make. And public presentations are something Lette (Charlie Dorfman) isn’t allowed to make: He’s invented a revolutionary (within his industry; otherwise stultifyingly dull) new plug for car-manufacturing machinery, but his company insists his assistant Karlmann (Arian Nik) present it to customers.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Theatre review: Barber Shop Chronicles

If my way home from the theatre is by bus, which includes trips back from the National, even if the show finished quite late chances are the row of black barber shops in Camberwell will still be open and doing business. Clearly there’s a cultural significance that’s built up around barber shops rather than a huge market for 10:30pm haircuts, and this is what Inua Ellams’ new comedy-drama at the Dorfman explores. Barber Shop Chronicles is made up of vignettes from barbers’ around Africa, but the central thread is set in a shop that – based on the local references the characters make – could easily be one of those in Camberwell: Three Kings Barbers was set up years ago by three friends, but only one is still working there. Emmanuel (Cyril Nri) has taken over the business after an incident between the other two we don’t hear about at first. Samuel (Fisayo Akinade) has taken over the second chair from his father, and harbours some resentment towards Emmanuel for something he believes the older man failed to do.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Theatre review: Salomé (RSC / Swan)

It's not the subtlest form of flirtation but if you ask a lady nicely she might get her cock out for you - although you might have to give her head in return. Yep, it's the story that's been striking dread into London's theatregoers but I'm not crazy enough to see the National's Salomé again - this time it's Stratford-upon-Avon and Oscar Wilde's one-act tragedy. But even this isn't quite the version Wilde imagined, although he'd probably have enjoyed watching it for a couple of reasons: The text is unchanged but director Owen Horsley is using it to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The online trailer for the show has the feel of a gentleman's specialist film, and Bretta Gerecke's designs immediately suggest a gay club, the kind that probably isn't too surprised or bothered if more than one person uses the same toilet cubicle.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Theatre review: Bat out of Hell

Could I have picked a more appropriately-titled show to see on this election night than Bat out of Hell?

When Colin and Harriet Loaf’s eldest son Meat said he wanted to be a professional musician they were understandably concerned, but fortunately for him he met musical theatre writer Jim Steinman, who was writing a futuristic Peter Pan musical because of course he was. He ditched the musical, used the songs on the album Bat out of Hell instead, and Mr Meat C. Loaf* became the king of 1980s and ‘90s power ballads, The End. BUT NO IT WASN’T THE END, because thirty-odd years later Steinman remembered about the musical and decided to finish it, make it completely fucking mental, and bolt “I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)” onto the end whether it really made sense or not, because people would be expecting that one. AND THEN IT GOT BOOKED INTO THE COLISEUM FOR THE SUMMER TO REALLY CONFUSE THE SHIT OUT OF OPERA FANS AND PUT THE ICING ON THE CAKE. And lo, it could not take itself any less seriously if it tried, and it was duly declared shitmazing† by some bloke on an internet blog.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Non-review: Common

My concerted efforts in the last couple of years to avoid booking for shows I’m not likely to enjoy have been reasonably successful. Failing that, I’ve also let myself feel less self-conscious about leaving at the interval if a show I went for in high hopes turned out to be a dud. So I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed that one of my favourite current playwrights, DC Moore, has choked so badly when let loose on the Olivier stage. His new play for the National and Headlong, Common, is set in the early 18th century, a time when the Enclosures Act took what had until then been common farming land and divided it up into private plots – an early example of privatisation, then. The local Lord (Tim McMullan) is due to start enclosing the land in Hampstead when Mary (Anne-Marie Duff,) who’d left some years earlier and was presumed dead, returns to cause havoc.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Theatre review: Jam

In Matt Parvin’s first full-length play Jam, Bella Soroush (Jasmine Hyde) is a teacher at one of the high schools in a rural part of the South West. She used to teach at the other local school until an incident with a pupil, Kane McCarthy, ten years earlier. It was an event that scarred her and nearly ended her career, but she got back on track, and is alone at her new school one night, marking papers when Kane (Harry Melling) breaks in with a baseball bat. He says he isn’t going to harm her and she lets him have his say, but she’s clearly still afraid and no wonder: A chaotic presence at 13, with ADHD, dyslexia and an obsession with elaborate pranks, he still seems volatile at 23. He says he’s returned now because he’s got a brain tumour and has been given six months to live, and wants to tie up loose ends in his life; his story is detailed but Bella isn’t quite prepared to accept it isn’t a new and particularly dark practical joke.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Theatre review: Other People

DISCLAIMER: Drama school productions are technically amateur productions, but I try to review them like anything else as the cast will be hoping to go on to professional work next.

LAMDA has opened its new building, including two specially-built stages, and in my occasional trips to try and spot the stars of the future a revival of Christopher Shinn’s – he of the much-loved Now or Later and the rather unloved Teddy Ferrara – second play caught my eye. Written in 2000 but set over Christmas 1997, Other People’s pop culture references, particularly numerous nods to the film Men in Black, make it something of a period piece. Wannabe playwright Stephen (Max Loban) shares a flat with his friend Petra (Alexandra Jiménez,) who’s just returned from a lucrative job stripping in Japan, and has continued to do so now she’s back, even though she doesn’t need the money. They agree to let Stephen’s ex-boyfriend Mark (Eduard Buhac,) a filmmaker who developed a drug habit while he was in Hollywood, stay on their couch when he gets out of rehab. It’s largely because Stephen is still in love with him and hopes to rekindle something, but it seems unlikely once Mark turns out to have found religion in a big way while in rehab, and appears to be more interested in his Bible than sex.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Theatre review: On The Town

Continuing Drew McOnie's inexorable rise to challenge Matthew Bourne as Britain's most famous choreographer, and after his dances were one of the reasons for last year's Jesus Christ Superstar's success, he returns to Regent's Park to add directing to his CV as well. And it makes sense to have the same person direct and choreograph On The Town because it's the kind of show where the two seem very much like the same job: It was originally conceived as a ballet, and wordless dance sequences still form a huge part of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's musical. Best known for the Gene Kelly / Frank Sinatra film version, and for its big number "New York, New York," it follows three sailors on 24 hours' shore leave who each have a different idea of how to spend their big day, but all end up going on the same quest once Gabey (Danny Mac, who turns out not to be a discount cosmetics brand but a person,) sees a poster of a beauty queen on the subway.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Theatre review: Killology

Playwright Gary Owen is making a niche for himself as the very disturbing voice of a dispossessed underclass, as well as being, presumably, the Welsh tourist board's worst nightmare, giving us as he does a Wales that's an almost apocalyptic wasteland stalked by feral gangs. These gangs are the bane of Davey's (Sion Daniel Young) life growing up, and occasional incidents of horrific violence shape who he becomes as a teenager - fighting back against the bullies doesn't work so he learns to pick on those weaker than him himself. But there's even worse violence waiting for him, and this time he's unlikely to survive to continue the cycle. On the opposite end of the social scale, entirely fictional violence has shaped the life of Paul (Richard Mylan,) the designer behind a hugely successful computer game, Killology, which skips the fights of traditional beat-em-ups and goes straight for the kill, with the most creative and sadistic ways of killing opponents gaining the most points.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Theatre review: Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 2: Perestroika

Previously, on Angels in America...

I can joke but while I may have seen the two parts of Angels in America a week apart, Phill, who could only get tickets two months apart, wondered if he'd need a "Previously..." at the start of Part 2 to refresh his memory. And it turns out the National have thought of people in that predicament, as my reminder email about Perestroika included a short YouTube video summarising the major events of Millennium Approaches. These included the brief appearance by Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown,) a woman convicted of treason decades earlier, whose execution Roy Cohn ensured by dubious means. Her ghost continues to appear to Cohn (Nathan Lane) as a patient, ominous harbinger of his own much slower death from AIDS. There's also a bigger role now for Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett,) who's got the unenviable job of being Cohn's nurse, and whose acidic put-downs make him the right man to stand up to the notorious lawyer's vitriol.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Theatre review: An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an African-American playwright who got tired of everyone assuuming that his plays, regardless of their actual subject, must all be a metaphor for the black American experience. So, when looking for a subject to write about to cheer him up from a fit of depression he embraced this instead, adapting a play that confronted slavery head-on, and even has a title now considered offensive: 19th century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon. This, at least, is the origin of the darkly comic new version of the play as described by an author-substitute in the prologue: BJJ (Ken Nwosu) tells us his An Octoroon got derailed when he couldn't find white actors to play the unrepentant racist slave-owners, and this is where things get creative as the races get well-and-truly muddled up in a show featuring blackface, whiteface and even redface*.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Theatre review: Woyzeck

When the Old Vic announced that Jack Thorne would be writing an adaptation of Woyzeck and John Boyega would star I did wonder if the combination of a Harry Potter writer and a Star Wars actor would draw an audience unprepared for a play people have famously struggled to get to the bottom of for over a century. As it turns out I really hope there aren't too many kids being taken along as they'll have come away from the evening with a whole new vocabulary. Georg Büchner's play was unfinished when the playwright died in 1837, so all versions have always taken a bit of leeway in filling in the gaps. Thorne's version moves the action to 1980s West Berlin, where Boyega plays Frank Woyzeck, part of the British army presence patrolling the Berlin Wall. It's a job both stressful and dull, and those stationed there are thought of as inferior to those in the thick of it in Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Theatre review: Othello (English Touring Theatre / Wilton's Music Hall)

Richard Twyman takes over as Artistic Director of ETT with a production of Othello whose stripped-back nature points to the restrictions of a touring production, but doesn't get in the way of atmosphere and dangerous intensity. Othello (Abraham Popoola) has wooed and married Desdemona (Norah Lopez Holden) in secret, and when her father finds out he tries to get the soldier punished. But it's clear Desdemonda acted entirely of her own volition and besides, despite being an outsider to Venice, he's one of their most effective generals, and is needed at a battle in Cyprus. So this plan to take down Othello fails, but its architect remains unsuspected: Iago (Mark Lockyer,) a trusted ensign overlooked for promotion, has developed a violent hatred of his general, and now comes up with a much more complicated and bloody plot, to convince Othello his new bride is cheating on him, and fan his jealousy into a murderous rage.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Theatre review: Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes Part 1: Millennium Approaches

For the second year in a row London's hottest theatre ticket, with reviews to match the level of anticipation, is an epic play in two parts with a supernatural element. But far from the obvious appeal of Harry Potter, this year it's a 25-year-old American play about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s that was the instant sell-out. Tony Kushner's Angels in America comes in at well over seven hours, the first three acts of which are haunted by a sense of dread at something apocalyptic on the way - hence its subtitle, Millennium Approaches. Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) is a flaboyant gay man who's just found out he's got the virus. His boyfriend of a few years, Louis Ironson (James McArdle,) is still deeply in love with him but very quickly realises a fact he hates himself for: He can't handle staying with Prior to watch him get sick and die.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Theatre review: Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey

The Roman theme of this year's RSC season in Stratford extends to the Swan, most obviously in Vice Versa, or, The Decline & Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey. Phil Porter's farce is inspired by the plays of Plautus, although they're not the only thing that's been "lovingly ripped off" - that tagline itself comes from Spamalot, and Janice Honeyman's production resembles nothing so much as a Carry On film - there's even a nod to the famous "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me" line from the play's gull, Braggadocio (Felix Hayes.) The vain and ludicrous General returns to Rome from a war, bringing with him some of the people he's enslaved - including the lady Voluptua (Ellie Beaven,) whom he's taken as a concubine.