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.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Theatre review: Dr Angelus

"Ah well, you did your best and it wasnae very good... And that's a fair epitaph for most of us." Obscure mid-20th century plays really are delivering the best lines at the moment, this one courtesy of the Finborough's current alternate show, James Bridie's Dr Angelus. Set in 1920 and inspired by a true crime story, it follows recently-qualified Dr George Johnson (Alex Bhat,) who's moved to Glasgow to take a too-good-to-be-true partnership with the eccentric Dr Angelus (David Rintoul.) His gratitude and respect for the older man let him overlook some suspicious behaviour - like the fact that his heavily-insured mother-in-law only gets sicker the more Angelus treats her, and when she finally dies he insists Johnson sign the death certificate. George keeps his silence even when Angelus' wife (Vivien Heilbron) starts exhibiting the same symptoms her mother did.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Theatre review: Sheppey

I'd always thought of Somerset Maugham as a novelist and short story writer who'd also written the odd play, but it turns out in the early part of his career he was quite a prolific and successful playwright. He did give up the theatre for the last three decades of his life though, and 1933's Sheppey was his final play. It's a satirical, political comedy on issues that are sadly timeless, and starts in a barber's shop where Sheppey (John Ramm) is assistant to Mr Bradley (Geff Francis.) His sense of humour makes him popular with the customers and his ability to sell Bradley's various potions to pretty much anyone is legendary. He's always said he was born lucky and it's proven when he wins the £8,500 jackpot in the sweepstakes. But this financial fortune comes at the same time as a health scare, and when he recovers from what might have been a mini-stroke, he's significantly changed his mind about what to do with the money.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Theatre review: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales

"Candles are so much better than electricity, aren't they?" Emma Rice's family Christmas show for Shakespeare's Globe opens with a gag about her drive-by Artistic Directorship of the venue, and the row over a lighting rig that'll see her leave in 18 months. Things don't stay quite as meta for the rest of The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, in which Rice and Joel Horwood adapt three Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, held together by the story of the titular sinister puppet. The homeless matchgirl meets Ole Shuteye (Paul Hunter,) who says they can warm themselves up not just with the matches but also with stories - for every match they strike, Shuteye and his troupe of actors will act out a story, starting with "Thumbelina" (Bettrys Jones, cast against type as an adult woman, admittedly a very small one.) I don't think "Thumbelina" was a story I heard or read particularly often as a child because I didn't really remember much of what happens in it.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Theatre review: Nice Fish

It seems like "whimsy" is the word of the week - a couple of days ago it was a particularly Welsh brand of it, now it's an American version brought to life by Mark Rylance, himself very much an English eccentric (in fact this play only makes me find more plausibility in Weez' theory that Rylance isn't actually an actor, but a collection of small woodland creatures standing on each other's shoulders in a coat,) who actually grew up in America. Nice Fish is by US writer Louis Jenkins, whose poems Rylance has a habit of reading out in lieu of acceptance speeches for his many awards, and it definitely feels like what it is: A collection of existing writings strung together, rather than a narrative. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) has gone out onto a frozen Minnesota lake to fish through the ice, and brought with him Ron (Rylance,) who'll be keeping him company but has no interest in fishing himself.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Theatre review: The Children

After the large-cast, continent-hopping Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood scales things down to a story about three retired nuclear scientists, in a single scene that plays out in real time. But looked at another way The Children is Kirkwood's take on a disaster movie - albeit a look at the behind-the-scenes emotional devastation behind the explosions. There have been explosions - in an event literally described as The Disaster, a freak earthquake off the English coast caused a tsunami that hit a nuclear power station, triggering a meltdown. Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) met while they were both working at the nuclear plant, and even after their retirement they stayed in their home nearby. Their house is now in the quarantined exclusion zone, and while work goes on to make the plant safe again, they've moved to a small holiday cottage further down the coast. This is where Hazel is surprised by a visit from their former colleague and friend Rose (Francesca Annis.)

Theatre review: The Duke

Shôn Dale-Jones is the creator and performer behind "emerging performance artist" Hugh Hughes, but for his latest show The Duke he's making a point of performing as himself. He also runs all the sound effects from a laptop on his desk, something that's practical as he can't afford to pay a sound engineer - the show is, by definition, not going to make any money. This is because the story itself touches on the refugee crisis, and in a more tangible sense the show is an attempt to help in some way: Tickets are free, and instead the audience are asked to make a donation to child refugee charities on the way out. It might be Shôn on stage rather than Hugh but it's still an hour of storytelling, and the starting point is a porcelain figurine of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, bought by his father in 1974 as an investment. Ten years after his father's death, Dale-Jones gets a distraught call from his mother to say she's accidentally broken the Duke while dusting.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Theatre review: After October

"I can't imagine ever being able to laugh about any of this," says Rodney Ackland's author substitute. Which is actually one of the evening's better gags as After October is a play that does exactly that. Ackland ended up becoming one of the most popular West End playwrights of the mid-20th Century before falling back into obscurity, but this autobiographical play goes back to before his success: Clive Monkhams (Adam Buchanan) is a young writer who occasionally makes a living out of magazine articles, and has published three novels that nobody bought. But his big hopes lie with a play that's actually found a producer willing to stage it in a small West End theatre. It's 1936, and Clive lives in a basement flat with his mother Rhoda (Sasha Waddell,) a former actress who fostered a bohemian spirit in her children but, after her husband died penniless, can't actually afford for them all to maintain their lifestyle.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Theatre review: The Tempest (RSC & Intel / RST & Barbican)

At some point during rehearsals at the RSC the following conversation must surely have taken place:
"You know how we've marketed this production of The Tempest as being especially family-friendly and a good first Shakespeare for younger kids? Well there's a scene coming up that's basically a 25-minute information dump where the whole plot gets described and nothing happens visually. So you know how this production uses some of the most sophisticated projections ever seen on stage? Maybe we could use some of those to illustrate that scene?"
"... Nah."
That's right, I'm getting my usual gripe about Prospero's Basil Exposition speech out of the way early this time, and no, except for one moment Gregory Doran's production doesn't use its theatrical toolbox to make it any less dry.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Theatre review: Peter Pan (National Theatre)

"Sorry Peter, Wendy can't play today, she's getting a hip replacement."

Last year I left Sally Cookson's Jane Eyre at the interval, and Peter Pan isn't a favourite story of mine, so the combination of the two didn't make this year's NT family Christmas show appeal too much. It was only the eccentric casting of Sophie Thompson as Captain Hook that made me book, so the fact that Thompson broke her wrist (the irony!) and had to withdraw from the production was a disappointment to say the least. She's been replaced by Anna Francolini, an excellent choice but, after her villain on the same stage in last year's, perhaps not quite as surprising. Wendy (Madeleine Worrall) and her younger brothers John (Marc Antolin) and Michael (John Pfumojena) are left home alone when their parents go to a work party, and flying green child Peter Pan (Paul Hilton) gets into their bedroom. After Wendy helps him get his shadow back, Peter teaches the siblings how to fly, and leads them to Neverland.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Theatre review: Dead Funny

Comedians Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd died within days of each other; it's during that week in 1992 that Dead Funny takes place, so it's no surprise that 2016, with its bloodbath of the national treasures, would be a good time for Terry Johnson to revive his play. It's a pretty extreme comedy-drama that looks at an imploding marriage through the prism of the silliest kind of classic British comedy. Richard (Rufus Jones) and Ellie (Katherine Parkinson) haven't had sex in 18 months because Richard says he's lost all interest in it. They're seeing a couples therapist who's prescribed an hour every other night of them gradually getting used to touching each other again, even if it's in a non-sexual way, but even this seems to make Richard uncomfortable. What he's much more enthusiastic about is his love of classic comedy, and his position as chairman of the Dead Funny Society, who share his passion. When the news of Benny Hill's death is announced, they plan a tribute party.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Theatre review: Half a Sixpence

So... thruppence then?

Two big musicals are opening at the same time in London with books by Julian "only living human rich enough to read Shakespeare without his head falling off" Fellowes (and both feature gay stereotypes used for cheap gags, but sure, let's give him another couple of dozen chances before we make any judgements.) Like School of Rock, this is an adaptation of an existing piece, although David Heneker and Beverley Cross' Half a Sixpence is a lot less fresh in the collective memory; in any case we're told Fellowes, along with songwriters Styles and Drewe, have done a very extensive rewrite of the original. Arthur Sixpence Kipps (Charlie Stemp) is a draper's apprentice in Folkestone with a crush on one of the upper-class customers, and Helen (Emma Williams) is charmed by him too. The class difference means they could never pursue a relationship, until Arthur inherits a fortune from the grandfather he never knew.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Theatre review: School of Rock

I know it's getting to the point where I'm seeing The Horrors Of This Year in absolutely everything, but you've got to admit there's something very 2016 to a show all about "sticking it to the man" composed by, and making a healthy profit for, the very dictionary definition of The Man. Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng composes the stage adaptation of the film School of Rock, with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian "here proles, let me dumb down Shakespeare for you so you don't get drool all over him" Fellowes, just in case the disconnect between subject matter and creative team wasn't surreal enough already. School of Rock is the story of an expensive private school that should be the subject of numerous lawsuits due to its dangerously negligent lack of background checking on potential new staff.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Theatre review: I Call My Brothers

Once again theatre feels like the medium responding the fastest to worrying trends around the world, with a Swedish play touching on the rise of a far-right party to power in that country, but more so on the way this sentiment trickles down to the man on the street. In Jonas Hassen Khemiri's I Call My Brothers, that man is Amor (Richard Sumitro,) an Asian man in his twenties who's out clubbing on a Saturday night when a car bomb, soon to be attributed to an Islamic terrorist, goes off in downtown Stockholm. We follow Amor over the next 24 hours as he goes into town to do chores, chatting to friends and family members on the phone. The more the day goes on the more he feels targeted and under suspicion by the police and the public, but whether he's really being looked at differently or is imagining it might be up for debate.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Theatre review: Orca

Not a 1970s movie made up largely of stock footage from Seaworld, this Orca is the latest Papatango winner, a playwrighting award that seems to have a weakness for scripts with a dark fantasy or sci-fi touch. But Matt Grinter's play only features the supernatural as part of its mythology, the actual immediate threat is all too inevitably human. The setting is a remote Scottish island, the time could be almost any part of the last hundred years, and the atmosphere is one of determined isolation: Fishing is naturally the main occupation, but while the boats go out to sea every day, it's very unusual for anyone to visit one of the neighbouring islands, let alone the mainland. Orca pods have been spotted in the ocean over the centuries, and are blamed for scaring off the fish whenever times are bad; the islanders have created a mythology and an associated annual ritual to protect their catch.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Theatre review: King Lear (Old Vic)

Matthew Warchus' second year in charge of the Old Vic is shaping up to be as starry as his predecessor's time, starting with King Lear - not just any bit of gender-blind casting in the lead role but Glenda Jackson coming out of retirement after decades of giving up acting for politics. She's hardly surrounded by obscure actors either, with Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks as Goneril and Regan, Harry Melling as Edgar and Rhys Ifans as the Fool; plus many familiar London stage faces like Karl Johnson as Gloucester, Sargon Yelda as Kent, Danny Webb as Cornwall and Simon Manyonda as Edmond. Deborah Warner's production brings its star onto the stage and promptly has her turn her back to the audience, but this turns out to be a cannier move than it first seems: Jackson's King Lear is about to divide his kingdom, and asks his daughters to quantify their love for him.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Theatre review: Lazarus

Fuck knows what this is supposed to be.

Lazarus by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, based on The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, is booking until the 22nd of January at the Kings Cross Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through,

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

NB: There is sustained strobe lighting, to the extent that I think Jan Versweyveld might have a specific grievance towards epileptics.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Re-review: Tonight with Donny Stixx

When I did my annual roundup last year there was a first in my list of favourite shows - two new plays by the same writer made it into my top ten. Regular readers (both of them) will know there's only a couple of likely candidates, and while I wouldn't be surprised if Tom Wells manages it too some year, this time it was of course Philip Ridley whose Radiant Vermin I put at number 1, and Tonight with DonnyStixx at number 8; I also gave the latter's star Sean Michael Verey my award for best solo performance. You can read my original review here, from the first-ever public preview, before it officially opened in Edinburgh. It's taken over a year but the murderous but horribly sympathetic amateur magician Donny Stixx is back, David Mercatali's production finally returning to London but to a new venue: The Bunker is an underground former art studio next to the Menier Chocolate Factory that's been converted into a decent-sized thrust stage; I'm pretty sure the multicoloured benches that form the central seating bank are left over from the Menier's production of Assassins.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Theatre review: The Last Five Years

While America was voting to royally fuck up the next four years, I was watching The Last Five Years, a show I'd long been aware of but never got round to seeing until now. Jason Robert Brown's musical follows a fairly straightforward story of a relationship that doesn't quite stand the test of time: Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) is an aspiring writer, Cathy (Samantha Barks) an aspiring actress, and they fall in love soon after graduating from college. His career takes off pretty quickly, with a book deal and reading tours around the US, but her acting career never really matches it - a rep season in Ohio that she takes as a stopgap looks like it's as good as it's ever going to get for her. Cathy gets frustrated and bitter, Jamie cheats on her, and their marriage disintegrates. The twist is that we hardly ever see the two characters interact because their story is being told from different directions: We meet Jamie in the first flush of love, laughing at the fact that he's met his perfect girl, if only she was Jewish.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Theatre review: Kiss Me

He's still considered something of a big-hitter after the success of One Man, Two Guvnors, but Richard Bean's more recent plays have tended towards the disappointing, so a step back to something a bit more low-key and intimate could be a good move. And so it proves as Kiss Me is a two-hander running just over an hour, and premieres at Hampstead's Downstairs studio space. A romantic comedy-drama with a period setting but some unexpectedly modern attitudes, it takes place a few years after the First World War, which has left women all over Britain widowed, or with husbands so badly injured they can't father children. Enter the unseen and mysterious Dr Trollope, who finds desperate women and offers them an extreme solution: With fertility treatment still in its infancy, she can arrange for a visit from a particularly potent young man to make a baby the old-fashioned way.