Saturday, 21 January 2017

Theatre review: Winter Solstice

As has become increasingly apparent over the last few years, the rest of the world doesn't seem to think Gemany might have any insights on fascism worth listening to. But the Germans, bless them, keep trying, with the latest warning coming from Roland Schimmelpfennig, whose Winter Solstice comes to the Orange Tree in a translation by David Tushingham. An upper middle class couple in a household we're told has never voted for a conservative party, Bettina (Laura Rogers) is a director of arthouse films nobody particularly wants to watch, while her husband Albert (Dominic Rowan) is a popular historian who's written a number of hit books. Both are having affairs, Bettina with Albert's best friend Konrad (Milo Twomey,) and the family tensions are particularly fraught as they wait for Bettina's mother to arrive.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Theatre review: Us/Them

A short season of visiting shows in rep at the Dorfman starts with Us/Them from BRONKS, a Belgian company that specialises in theatre for children and young people. So the subject it tackles - a terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia in 2004, in which over a thousand children and parents were held hostage in a school - might seem an unlikely one for that audience, but director Carly Wijs has taken as her text the children's own accounts of the event. Various survivors' stories have been boiled down to a boy (Roman Van Houtven) and girl (Gytha Parmentier) who set the scene of this town near the border with Chechnya - from what they've heard from adults, a dark place full of bogeymen. The siege began on the first day of term so their description of the buildings and singing at assembly blur abruptly into a school gym full of a gradually dropping number of hostages.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Theatre review: Wish List

For the second year the Royal Court partners with the Royal Exchange in Manchester to stage a Bruntwood Prize winner, and following last year's Yen there's another kitchen sink drama looking at an easily ignored class, whose every last lifeline the current government's all too gleefully eager to cut. Tamsin (Erin Doherty) and her brother Dean (Joseph Quinn) had fairly promising and ordinary lives ahead of them until their mother's death, which led Tamsin to neglect her education and Dean's mild OCD to turn into a completely debilitating condition: He's fixated with all food and drink being scalding hot and has a system of knocking on wood to get him through the day, but his most obsessive ritual is constantly washing and styling his hair. He can barely dress himself let alone work, so it's down to Tamsin to support them both (their father is never mentioned,) but with no qualifications all she can find is a zero-hours contract packing goods for NOT AMAZON DEFINITELY NOT AMAZON.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Theatre review: Promises, Promises

The description on the website threatens "a triumph of 1960s sexual work-place politics" but also promises Burt Bacharach songs, making Southwark Playhouse's latest musical revival something of a mixed prospect. Bacharach provides the music, Hal David the lyrics and Neil Simon the book for Promises, Promises, the musical adaptation of Billy Wilder film The Apartment. Chuck Baxter (Gabriel Vick) has a junior role in a huge New York insurance firm, but doesn't realise he also has a secret weapon in the form of his tiny apartment, only a couple of blocks away from the office. Numerous married executives are having affairs with young women working at the company, and they talk Chuck into letting them use his apartment for sex, in return for putting in a good word for him at work. He finally gets his promotion when the personnel director Sheldrake (Paul Robinson, not the one from Neighbours) finds out and joins the club.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Theatre review: The Albatross 3rd & Main

I must admit that looking back at the blurb for The Albatross 3rd & Main I had no idea what made me decide to go see it; I strongly suspect I looked at how quiet the start of the year was and just added something to pad it out. US writer Simon David Eden directs and designs his own play about a dilapidated general store in the middle of nowhere*. Gene (Hamish Clark) is in debt following a divorce and a gambling problem, and has put the store in the name of his assistant, brain-damaged ex-boxer Lullaby (Andrew St Clair-James) to stop it from being repossessed. So he's tempted by an offer from hyped-up Spider (Charlie Allen,) who arrives with a dead golden eagle in a box. The bird collided with his car, and as it has great religious significance to various Native American tribes, Spider wants to use a contact of Gene's to sell the carcass on the black market.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Theatre review: The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus

Whatever else I might have to say about it, there's something to admire about a play that's had to stick a note on the doors of the pub below, apologising for the noise. Still, there's also good reason to be apprehensive about any play by Tony Harrison, a poet whose Fram still gives its name to one of the less flattering of my annual awards. But a much shorter running time makes it worth risking when he's attempting something that anyone interested in Ancient Greek theatre will want to see: I've often heard of the satyr plays that would provide the comic relief after a day of full-on tragedy, but I don't know much about them - probably because to the best of my knowledge only one survives. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is Harrison's attempt to recreate one of the lost satyr plays.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Theatre review: Mary Stuart

My first theatre trip of 2017 should have been one of my last of 2016, but the performance I was due to see was one of several cancelled due to cast illness - presumably the gastroenteritis that's knocked out half the West End and got me last month as well. But everyone's back on their feet now for the latest of Robert Icke's classic reinventions at the Almeida, Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart. In the battle of wills between the last Tudor monarch and her great rival, Icke sees the women as two sides of the same coin - literally, as two actresses share both roles, with a coin spun at the beginning of the performance to decide who plays who. Tonight Lia Williams called heads and won, so the assembled cast bowed to her as Queen Elizabeth I, who's been ruling for eight years and has restored Protestantism to England - along with a stability the country hasn't known for a long time.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's been like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

Whenever I do my annual roundup of the theatre year in and around London I like to say a little thanks to the readers (both of them) who've put aside a few minutes of computer time that could have been more usefully spent masturbating, and have used them to read my reviews instead. Although given my preferred policy on what photos to illustrate this blog with, there's probably been a couple of times when multitasking was possible. I may already be getting off track a bit - the point is especially thanks this clusterfuck of a year when there's been enough other stuff you could have been worrying about. Maybe my blog's a diversion from it all for you, like theatre largely is for me (although of course, The Horrors Of 2016 have already been creeping into shows and will no doubt be doing so with a vengeance in future years.) But for now let's look back and give out the least important theatre awards in existence (or the most important - it really depends on how strongly you feel about nipples.)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Theatre review: She Loves Me

I started 2016 with a musical about a rather niche subject; I end the year on a more old-fashioned one that isn't strictly speaking formulaic - it became the formula for several Hollywood Rom-Coms. She Loves Me has a book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and takes its story from Hungarian play Parfumerie, about hate turning to love in the titular shop. Georg (Mark Umbers) is the perennially single deputy store manager who's resorted to a lonely hearts column, and has fallen for a woman he's been exchanging letters with. When one of the shop clerks leaves, her replacement Amalia (Scarlett Strallen) instantly annoys him by selling a music box he'd bet would be unsellable, and their relationship is fractious from then on. Needless to say, Amalia is actually the "Dear Friend" he's been writing to, and she feels the same way about his letters.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Theatre review: Hedda Gabler

Having played a part in Lazarus existing, Ivo van Hove has a chance to redeem himself with the classic reinterpretations he does best. He brings a production he originally staged at his own theatre to the National, as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler gets a new translation by (inevitably) Patrick Marber, and Ruth Wilson plays Hedda, married for six months and already deeply regretting it. The daughter of a celebrated and wealthy general, she grew up the centre of attention, including from numerous male suitors. After telling a series of seemingly innocuous lies, and in a sudden moment of paranoia about getting older, she agreed to marry the academic Tesman (Kyle Soller.) By the end of their extended honeymoon she's realised she'll never care about the esoteric subjects her husband fixates on, while he'll never be able to keep her in the style she's accustomed to unless he gets a professorship.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Dance review: The Red Shoes

Time for one of my very occasional dips into the world of dance - this year my mum decided she'd like to be taken to the ballet for Christmas, and when she heard that Matthew Bourne had adapted a film she remembers fondly, The Red Shoes, into a new ballet that decided it. Bourne's also looked to the cinema for his music, choosing the work of Bernard Herrmann - best known for scoring Hitchcock films, although most of the music used here predates that collaboration. In many ways the story is a natural fit for a ballet as it's about ballet: Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) is a dancer in the Ballet Lermontov who's never really caught the attention of its conductor Boris (Sam Archer,) and so has never got further than background roles. That's until prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) is injured on tour.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Theatre review: "Art"

Florian Zeller is the French playwright who's all the rage in London at the moment, but in the nineties that title belonged firmly to Yasmina Reza. A few of her plays got West End runs but it was "Art" that brought her to public attention and became a big hit. Matthew Warchus' production ran for eight years, its gimmick of replacing the three-strong cast every couple of months keeping it in the public eye and ticket sales going strong. With Warchus now in charge of the Old Vic he's seen an opportunity to revive the play for its 20th anniversary. In fact he may well be said to be reviving the same production - I saw that twice, with one of the early cast changes at Wyndhams* and then a few years later when it had moved to the Whitehall Theatre (before it became Trafalgar Studios.) And though it's been a while this feels familiar: The latest trio to play the 40-something men who've been friends for 15 years are Rufus Sewell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Theatre review: Saint Joan

When other actors have had Hollywood commitments this year, Gemma Arterton's turned them into opportunities: When Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn't make the transfer of Nell Gwynn she stepped in, and now that Cush Jumbo's one-season stint on The Good Wife has turned into a spin-off, she's left another juicy lead free for Arterton to grab with both hands, taking over as Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the Donmar. Following Henry V's military success, much of France is ruled by England, and though they fight back the odds always seem to be against the French army. That's until Joan's combination of guileless charm and forcefulness makes them take the gamble of letting a young girl who claims to hear the voices of saints, take command of the military. She quickly does everything she promised, getting the Dauphin (Fisayo Akinade) his overdue coronation, and control of much of his country. But with her job done, Joan is a liability.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Theatre review: Platinum

Martha (Siân Thomas) was a legendary protest singer in the 1970s, but she retired both from music and from public view. Simon (George Blagden) is a music academic doing his PhD on protest music and Martha in particular, but he's hit a brick wall and only speaking to the elusive singer herself will give him the details he needs. In a last-ditch attempt, he contacts her estranged daughter Anna (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) a commercial pop singer who's had some success with her first album, and is now struggling to put together a follow-up. Confronted with Simon's questions about her mother at a time when she's feeling vulnerable about her own work, Anna lets slip Martha's big secret: Her biggest, most influential hit was so different from her other songs because she didn't actually write it. She now lets Simon know where he can find her mother so she can give her side of the story, as writer Hannah Patterson returns to Hampstead Downstairs with her short play Platinum.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Theatre review: Wild Honey

Nobody could accuse Ed Hall's Hampstead Theatre of wild programming, but the word itself is one they're very fond of - we've had Wildefire, Wild and now Wild Honey, Michael Frayn's version of Chekhov's unfinished Platonov. This revival was due to be directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died at the beginning of rehearsals, and his replacement should be well-versed in the play: Jonathan Kent directed a different version of Platonov as part of his Young Chekhov trilogy at the National only a few months ago. There's another connection to that day-long epic, as Geoffrey Streatfeild returns to the one play out of the three that he didn't appear in this summer. Frayn's play is a shorter, broader version of the story of Platonov (Streatfeild,) a provincial schoolteacher who's spent the winter in virtual hibernation with his wife Sasha (Rebecca Humphries) and their baby son.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Theatre review: All the Angels

New plays in the Swanamaker have tended to have a classical music theme to tie in with the venue's concert series - Farinelli and the King has so far been the big hit. Nick Drake's All the Angels is a returning show from the Dominic Dromgoole era, with a look at a particularly famous piece of music: Handel (David Horovitch) was best-known for opera but had had some embarrassing flops when the libretto to Messiah came his way. A religious choral work seemed a welcome change from opera, an art form he felt had betrayed him, while an invitation to do a residency in Dublin got him away from the scene of his humiliation, as well as a much-needed paycheck.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Theatre review: Dreamgirls

Not every Broadway hit makes a quick move to the West End but Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 show Dreamgirls taking until 2016 to make it to London must be one of the longest delays. The film adaptation a few years ago can't have hurt it finally making the trip, as it now has an enthusiastic audience ready for it, so the vast Savoy is the venue for Casey Nicholaw's production of a story set in the 1960s and '70s, about black music making a play to break out of its "specialist" niche and into the pop mainstream. Girl group The Dreams are childhood friends Effie (Amber Riley, doing this to supplement her income because her day job as a Dream Ghost doesn't pay so well,) Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) and Lorrell (Ibinabo Jack,) who sing original songs composed by Effie's brother C.C. (Tyrone Huntley.) Shifty producer Curtis (Joe Aaron Reid) convinces them to take a job as backing singers as a stepping stone to their own career.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Theatre review: Rent

I have my own theories as to why one of Broadway's biggest-ever hits only ever had modest success in the UK, and although I've seen Rent twice before, this is the first time I've seen what could be called a "straightforward" production in this country: I saw the notorious Rent Remixed, which must still serve as the gold standard of "so bad it's good," and the one time I have seen it played straight was the 2011 off-Broadway revival, in which the audience could be described as... very much what you might imagine an American audience to be. So it's interesting to see this 20th anniversary touring production played more or less as written to a British crowd, although clearly one made up largely of established fans. Technically an adaptation of the Puccini opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson's rock musical is an ensemble piece set in New York's "alphabet city" in the mid-nineties, with the AIDS crisis still in full swing.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Theatre review: Aladdin (Lyric Hammersmith)

For the fifth year running it was a big group outing to the Lyric Hammersmith's pantomime, where last year's director Ellen McDougall and set designer Oliver Townsend are back, as is Cinderella's Prince Charming Karl Queensborough in the title role of Aladdin. It's all change elsewhere though, most notably in the script where, after three years, Tom Wells has left (probably because he had two new plays of his own this year to worry about) and former co-writer Joel Horwood has returned without his writing partner Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Panto of course always has a bit of a topical edge and so here the story's introduced by the villain - Nigel David Donald Theresa Boris Abanazer (Vikki Stone,) who lives in Fulhammerboosh, where the rich have all the power and the poor are vilified.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Theatre review: Once in a Lifetime

It's fair to say my past experience with director Richard Jones' work hasn't been stellar; at least I didn't leave his last three shows at the interval, but that is partly down to the fact that they didn't have intervals. I've liked a couple of his shows though so went along to his return to the Young Vic, and though it's lacking in some crucial ways at least I wasn't tempted to take an early bath. Once in a Lifetime is a product of the ten-year playwrighting partnership of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, who had numerous Broadway hits, in a version restructured for 12 actors by Hart's son Christopher. (Not that 12 is a tiny cast, but it seems as if the original required so many bodies it became prohibitively expensive and nobody wanted to revive it.) It's obvious why extravagance might have been on the playwrights' agenda though as their subject is Hollywood, and the particular excitement after the first talking picture was released in 1927.