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.