Friday, 17 February 2017

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

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

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

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Theatre review: School Play

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

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Theatre review: The Pitchfork Disney

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

Friday, 10 February 2017

Opera review: The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak

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

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Theatre review: The White Devil

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

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Theatre review: Run The Beast Down

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

Monday, 6 February 2017

Theatre review: Sex With Strangers

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

Friday, 3 February 2017

Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

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

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Theatre review: Buried Child

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

Monday, 30 January 2017

Theatre review: Experience

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

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Theatre review: Dublin Oldschool

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

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Theatre review: The Convert

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

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Theatre review: Raising Martha

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

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.