Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Theatre review: Grimly Handsome

In a week at the theatre that’s fast developing a theme of dreamlike oddity – and I haven’t even seen The Twilight Zone yet - Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome plays out like a Christmas comedy nightmare. The Royal Court’s old rehearsal space above Sloane Square station has been used as an actual performance venue so often by now that they’ve given it a name – The Site – and that’s where designer Chloe Lamford and director Sam Pritchard – credited as co-creators – have set their particular vision for the play. This sees the whole building decked out as an art installation, with the audience invited to turn up twenty minutes early and explore the various rooms Lamford has decorated with a kitsch aesthetic: A gym with walls covered in magazine cuttings of bodybuilders, a room filled with artsy photos on the theme of infidelity and, on the balcony, a crime scene tent.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Theatre review: Dear Brutus

J. M. Barrie’s Dear Brutus may take its title from Julius Caesar, but the Shakespeare play it borrows most overtly from is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lob (Robin Hooper) is a puckish – literally – old man who’s invited a group of strangers with one thing in common to spend the week at his home. As his guests try to figure out what their mysterious common characteristic is, they hear a local legend of a magical wood that appears in a different spot every Midsummer’s Eve; anyone who enters it is never seen again. The enchanted wood does appear, of course, and most of the guests do enter it, but in a three-act structure that’s like a much better-done version of The Passing of the Third Floor Back, they do all emerge again, all changed to varying degrees. This is a play full of wild variations in tone, as what each group of characters discovers in the wood is very different.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Theatre review: The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights was, for me, one of those things from childhood I'd completely forgotten about until a stage version was announced, and I suddenly remembered loving the slightly sinister 1984 TV adaptation. I'm normally worried about seeming a bit creepy turning up to kids' shows on my own but staging this at Wilton's Music Hall with a big-name creative team - Justin Audibert directing, Tom Piper designing - made this a memory lane trip I didn't want to miss. I needn't have worried about standing out, as with the majority of tonight's audience being in their forties I think this is largely attracting people for the same reason. Not that those children who were brought along didn't seem to be entirely enchanted as well by a production whose simple aesthetic fits in as well with the faded grandeur of its surroundings, as John Masefield's alternative Christmas story itself does.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Theatre review: Hamilton

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Although tonight's performance wasn't due to be a preview when I booked it, the repair works on the Victoria Palace overrunning meant the press night was put back*.

If there was any doubt that the people I work with aren't really theatre fans, Exhibit A: When they asked me what I was doing for my birthday and I said I was going to Hamilton they said "what, in Scotland?" Outside of my office, though, excitement over Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest musical seems to be at fever pitch. Quite apart from all the awards it's been the hottest ticket on Broadway since it opened, and its (slightly delayed) London opening more or less sold out instantly. I'd deliberately avoided listening to any of the songs so it could stand on its own, but it was clear that even on its third public performance the theatre was full of people familiar with the score and enthusiastic for Miranda's high-speed history lesson about America's founding fathers and particularly Alexander Hamilton (Jamael Westman,) who appears on the $10 note but is otherwise comparatively obscure.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Theatre review: How to Win Against History

With drag all over the West End, the Young Vic's Maria gets in on the act, although the cross-dressing in How to Win Against History is a bit of a red herring, or at least the tip of the iceberg. Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, was ridiculously wealthy even for an Edwardian aristocrat, but managed to end up dying destitute at the age of 29 thanks to his extravagant lifestyle, which included elaborate drag, rebuilding his family chapel into a personal theatre, and travelling the country putting on shows nobody wanted to see. His family were so ashamed of him they burnt all pictures of him they could find after his death, and attempted to wipe him out of history altogether. Clearly they didn't quite succeed, but very little information about this notable eccentric has survived, so Seiriol Davies' cabaret version of his life story is by necessity largely guesswork.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Theatre review: The Passing of the Third Floor Back

As you might be able to infer from my photo, I’m quite partial to a cheeseburger. Although it would presumably be pretty synonymous with an instant heart attack, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted by Byron’s Christmas Fromagemas burger this year, featuring four different types of cheese as well as a jug of cheese sauce to pour over your cheese in case your cheese wasn’t cheesy enough. If all this indulgence seems like a particularly 21st century type of excess, I would have to point out that 110 years ago West End audiences made a hit of Jerome K. Jerome’s The Passing of the Third Floor Back, a play featuring toxic levels of cheese they presumably couldn’t get enough of. Mrs Sharpe (Anna Mottram) runs a London boarding house for what she considers to be a better class of clientele, but everyone there is miserable and trying to get one over on each other.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Theatre review: Privates on Parade

Peter Nichols and Dennis King’s revue-style play Privates on Parade was last in London five years ago in an entertaining, starry West End production that papered over a lot of the problematic cracks. It now gets a much more intimate 40th-anniversary revival at the Union, and while Kirk Jameson’s production has its moments, it also feels much more exposing of the ways Nichols’ social commentary has dated. During the Malayan Emergency that came soon after the Second World War, Private Steve Flowers (Samuel Curry) is transferred from intelligence to SADUSEA, the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, which tours the area giving morale-boosting performances to the troops. They’re led by Acting Captain Terri Dennis (Simon Green,) who likes to perform as Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and, if he’s feeling particularly butch, Noël Coward.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Theatre review: Yellowman

There are plenty of stories about people whose fates are sealed by the colour of their skin, but Dael Orlandersmith offers one where every tiny difference in pigmentation seems to have a specific, unavoidable path attached to it. As part of a Genesis Award Nancy Medina directs a revival of 2002 play Yellowman, which is part love story, part memoir, but overwhelmingly about prejudice and class distinctions based on skin tone within the black community. Eugene and Alma both grew up in South Carolina, each of them with one parent darker-skinned than the other. Eugene (Christopher Colquhoun) has taken after his lighter-skinned mother and so is a colour referred to (usually with some resentment) as “high yellow-red;” Alma (Nicola Hughes) also looks like her mother, which means she’s much darker and has to put up with a lifelong tirade from her alcoholic mother about how fat, ugly and black she is.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Theatre review: Everybody's Talking About Jamie

In what must be the first West End musical to be based on a BBC3 documentary, Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae's (book and lyrics) Everybody's Talking About Jamie transfers to the Apollo from Sheffield, where it's set and where it premiered earlier this year. Jamie (John McCrea) is 16 and facing pretty dispiriting careers advice from his sour-faced form teacher Miss Hedge (Tamsin Carroll,) but he's already got very different and specific plans for how to make a living: He's never really been in the closet about his sexuality but the fact that he's always liked dressing up in his mother's clothes is more of a secret; but now, realising that it can actually be a job (there's a hat-tip to "Our Lady RuPaul,") he wants to be a drag queen when he grows up, and sees no reason not to get started straight away.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Theatre review: The Secret Theatre

Anders Lustgarten doesn’t seem an obvious fit for the Swanamaker, but in comparing present-day paranoia and manipulation by politicians to the intrigue of Elizabeth I’s court he’s found a subject that doesn’t just suit the time the venue recreates, but also feels at home in the shadows of the candlelit playhouse. The Secret Theatre is about the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (Aidan McArdle,) who responded to the numerous assassination plots against her by creating the first surveillance state. He lives surrounded by paper, collecting files on Catholic threats and potential traitors, planting spies everywhere he can - often to spy on each other – and seeding an atmosphere of suspicion that seeps into every corner of the country. His plan is that his secret service should be the world’s worst-kept secret: You don’t actually need to watch everyone if everyone thinks they’re being watched.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Theatre review: The Suppliant Women

The Oresteia is the only complete surviving Aeschylus trilogy, and consequently his most-performed work, but a couple of other individual plays of his are also extant; The Suppliant Women is the first in another sequence the rest of which has been lost. Of course, the same can be said of many of the plays by later writers that are still performed regularly, but Ramin Gray’s production, which goes right back to theatre’s early roots, quickly shows why this one might be seen as less ripe for reinvention than others. The titular women, a community chorus led by Gemma May Rees, are the Danaids, the Egyptian daughters of Danaos (Omar Ebrahim.) They have been ordered by the king Aegyptos to marry their first cousins, and they’ve fled Egypt with their father to escape the forced marriages. They trace their lineage to Argos, and one of Zeus’ various bestiality-themed extra-marital affairs, so that’s where they’ve sailed to seek asylum.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Theatre review: Quiz

My policy on making theatre trips to Chichester changed from "never" to "three times this year" in part thanks to each of the three shows feeling like they completed some kind of set: The decider was the chance to bookend a decade with different Ian McKellen performances of King Lear, but Sweet Bird of Youth made for a double bill of Tennesse Williams plays starring Brian J. Smith, and now the final show in Daniel Evans' first season in charge concludes a trio of new James Graham plays in 2017. Quiz is less obviously political than most of Graham's plays but you don't have to scratch too deep to find some of the wider themes that often come up in the playwright's work, particularly Privacy, about transparency in personal life, politics and the law; and whether the tendency towards leaving nothing secret in the name of full disclosure is in fact harming the chance of fair treatment behind closed doors. The reason this comes up is that Graham's creating a fictionalised version of a legal case considered to have become trial by media.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Theatre review: Network

It’s been a week of US TV stars on stage for me, with Mr Robot on Monday, Sideshow Bob on Tuesday, and now the big one: The dad from Malcolm in the Middle (he’s also done some… slightly edgier stuff since then.) Very much the director all the big names want to work with now, Ivo van Hove brings Bryan Cranston to the London stage for the first time to play Howard Beale in Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film. Beale is the lead news anchor on a poorly-performing TV network, and the news is struggling more than anything. When he’s told he’s being replaced Beale, taking advantage of the fact that nobody’s really paying attention to him, announces that he’ll commit suicide live on air during his final broadcast. It turns out to be exactly the thing to give his ratings a boost.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Theatre review: Big Fish

I’m not above enjoying something a bit sentimental at times, and Tim Burton’s film Big Fish was one case that hit the mark for me, so a musical adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel seemed worth a look. The film’s writer John August also provides the musical’s book, with songs by Andrew Lipa and, following an unsuccessful Broadway production, Nigel Harman directs a much-reworked, smaller-scale British premiere at The Other Palace. Edward Bloom (Sideshow BobKelsey Grammer) is in hospital, dying, and his recently-married son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) wants to find out about his father’s life before it’s too late. The trouble is Edward has spent his life spinning tall tales and isn’t planning on telling a more down-to-earth version just yet. The play is based around his hospital room, as Will and his fellow-journalist wife Josephine (Frances McNamee) search for clues to the truth.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Theatre review: Glengarry Glen Ross

According to Wikipedia, the Playhouse Theatre was designed by F.H. Fowler & Hill. A little-known fact about the architects is that they were semi-sentient, amorphous energy blobs who never actually met a living human being so assumed that, like the Fistyfelch people of Prang Centauri 9, our legs retract completely when we sit down. This is the only possible explanation for the seating in the Upper Circle, where you can't really accuse the audience of bad behaviour for moving around constantly when it's so obviously because they're in actual physical pain (I was on an aisle and there was nobody in the seat in front of me so I could hang my legs over the seat back, and that still wasn't enough leg room, and I'm not tall.) So the burden’s on any show staged there to hold the interest through the distractions; following Speed-the-Plow a couple of years ago, it’s again the turn of a David Mamet revival to try it.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Theatre review: Quaint Honour

This review is brought to you by codeine – I put my back out again on Saturday, and if I hadn’t got it under control by Sunday I’d have had to miss what might be the Finborough’s best rediscovery in years. The theatre’s official contribution to the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Roger Gellert’s Quaint Honour dates from a decade earlier, and is set in the location with perhaps the most ambiguous attitude to relationships between men: An all-boys’ boarding school. Sexual relationships between the pupils are of course strictly forbidden, but not quite so strictly policed – perhaps because the staff know the can of worms they’d be opening. But Head Prefect Park (Oliver Gully) is on a personal crusade to root out which of the boys are sleeping with each other. He hopes his deputy, Tully (Harley Viveash) will help him, but Tully thinks he’s imagining the problem.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Theatre review: The Retreat

There’s comedy royalty behind the scenes of The Retreat, the stage debut by Peep Show and Fresh Meat co-writer Sam Bain, directed by Kathy Fucking Burke; and it shows in an evening that may not hit every mark but doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to the laughs. Samuel Anderson plays Luke, a former high-flying city broker who’s given it up since meeting Tara (Yasmine Akram) at a festival. She runs a meditation centre in the Highlands, where – in a bare shack designed by Paul Wills - the whole play takes place in a single scene. In the course of a year since meeting Tara, Luke has become a Buddhist and left the consultancy he founded, and is now two months into a three-month meditation retreat. This is when his older brother Tony (Adam Deacon) turns up unannounced, ostensibly to tell him about the death of a distant relative.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Theatre review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage is, apparently, the role Josie Lawrence has most wanted to play her whole career, and now she's got the chance she doesn't waste it, bringing a whole new level of nuance to Bertolt Brecht's antiheroine. Hannah Chissick's production of Mother Courage and Her Children at Southwark Playhouse uses the Tony Kushner translation from the last National Theatre outing, right down to the Duke Special versions of the songs that intermittently break into the narrative. Nominally set during the Thirty Years War, allowing for an epic scope both in time and ranging across Northern Europe, the play follows Lawrence’s Anna “Courage” Fierling as she travels from battlefield to battlefield, lugging a cart filled with food, drink and random provisions she sells to the desperate soldiers. She’s come to dread the possibility of peace, as war is what her entire livelihood depends on.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Theatre review: Trestle

Although it's discovered some great plays over the last few years, the Papatango Prize winners tend to suggest the judges favour pretty bleak stories. So Stewart Pringle's Trestle feels like a bit of a change of pace, a gentler, more ambiguous play about barely-a-relationship between two pensioners. Widower Harry (Gary Lilburn) is the chairman of a "local improvement" committee in a small Yorkshire town, and every Thursday afternoon they meet at the local community centre. Denise (Connie Walker) is more recently retired, and has booked the next slot to teach a Zumba class for seniors. She meets Harry while he’s still clearing up after his meeting and, after an awkward misunderstanding where he mistakes her for the cleaner, helps him fold the trestle table. Over the next six months or so they meet for a few minutes like this every week, soon timing their arrivals and departures to make sure they don’t miss each other.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Theatre review: The Firm

Roy Williams was last at Hampstead Theatre writing about the police; now he comes to the Downstairs space with a look at the other side of the law. Gus (Clinton Blake) was once the leader of The Firm, the brains behind one of South London's most successful gangs of robbers and the only one of them never to be caught and jailed. Now pushing fifty they've all pretty much left that life behind them, and true to form Gus has had the most success since going legit: The play takes place in a wine bar he's about to reopen, one of a number of investments he owns. He and right-hand man Leslie (Jay Simpson) are preparing a party for Shaun, the last of the gang to still be in prison, to celebrate his release. Trent (Delroy Atkinson) and Selwyn (Clarence Smith) soon join them, but there's no sign of the guest of honour.