Saturday, 22 October 2016

Theatre review: Blue Heart

Shopping and Fucking might be the most attention-grabbing title getting a 20th anniversary revival but, already long-established by the time Mark Ravenhill & co emerged, Caryl Churchill showed around the same time that she could more than match the new faces for experimentation in form - even if, like her more recent Escaped Alone, she does it with middle class ladies rather than sexually charged Gen X-ers. Blue Heart is in fact a double bill of short works that play around with, in the first instance form, and in the second case language. In Heart's Desire, Alice (Amelda Brown) and Brian (Andy de la Tour) are waiting for their daughter Susy (Mona Goodwin) to arrive from the airport; She emigrated to Australia and this is her first visit back. But the wait is infinitely prolonged because Churchill keeps taking the action back to the start, or to a particular point in the conversation.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Theatre review: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

A musical about cancer sounds a dubious proposition at the best of times, let alone when there's the terrible precedent of Happy Ending. At least A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is a musical with actual songs in it; performance artist Bryony Kimmings directs, co-writes the book with Brian Lobel, provides the lyrics to songs by Tom Parkinson, and appears as a pre-recorded voiceover narrating and occasionally interacting with the cast. Parts of the play are verbatim, with the majority of the patients we see based on specific people, but the central figure is more loosely based on Kimmings herself and a prolonged health scare her son had: Emma (Amanda Hadingue) takes her baby son to an oncology ward for tests she assumes will take a couple of hours; as it becomes increasingly clear the results are bad, this turns into 24 hours in a purgatorial grey hospital ward with people at various stages of their illness.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Theatre review: Shopping and Fucking

A few years ago Sean Holmes seemed to be initiating a tradition of reviving a famously dark and controversial play at the Lyric every autumn. We had Sarah Kane and Edward Bond's respective bouts of cruelty to babies, and now after a few years the nasty stuff returns for the 20th anniversary of another noted shocker - and one that did very well out of its reputation, getting a couple of West End runs out of it in the '90s - Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking. Young couple Robbie (Alex Arnold) and Lulu (Sophie Wu) live with the older Mark (Sam Spruell,) as his property - he bought them for £20 from a man he met in a supermarket. All three seem pretty happy with the arrangement until Mark has to leave for a few months to go to an addiction treatment clinic. Robbie and Lulu aren't used to fending for themselves, and in their search for work Lulu auditions for a TV shopping channel.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Theatre review: The Red Barn

After his transatlantic success in Ivo van Hove's A View From The Bridge, Mark Strong returns to the stage to work with a director who's always shown van Hove's influence in his work; but in Robert Icke's first production at the National, it's a legendary film rather than stage director who immediately comes to mind. David Hare's new play The Red Barn is an adaptation of crime writer Georges Simenon's novel La Main, taking place in the winter of 1968-69 in New England, where lawyer Donald Dodd (Strong) and his wife Ingrid (Hope Davis) have their friends Mona (Elizabeth Debicki) and Ray (Nigel Whitmey) visiting. On the way back from a party they get caught in a blizzard, and only three of them make it back to the house: Despite Donald going back out to search for him, Ray is never seen alive again. Although the storm causes a number of deaths, Donald's jittery behaviour makes this one seem particularly suspicious.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Theatre review: The Mountaintop

This year's JMK award winner Roy Alexander Weise gets a more recently-staged play to direct than we usually see in this competition - or maybe seven years is in keeping with other productions, and the 2009 premiere of Katori Hall's Olivier-winning play has just stuck particularly well in my memory. The Mountaintop takes its title from the speech Dr Martin Luther King made in Memphis the day before his assassination, and takes place on that last night in his motel room. Needing to stay up to work on the next day's sermon, King (Gbolahan Obisesan) orders a coffee and gets more than he bargained for with it. Room service maid Camae (Ronke Adékoluejo) catches his eye straight away and seems to be flirting back, so he asks her to stay a while and share a few cigarettes with him.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Theatre review: The Dresser

Ronald Harwood is best-known for his contribution to the field of gibbering misogyny, but he also wrote some plays. Sean Foley's new production of the best-known one, The Dresser, comes to London after a short out-of-town tryout, and follows a co-dependent relationship over the course of one night during World War II. For the last 16 years Norman (Reece Shearsmith) has been personal dresser to the grand old stage actor Sir (Ken Stott,) a fairly well-respected name but appaently not enough to ever get the knighthood he desperately wants. They're currently on their latest leg of an endless regional tour of Shakespearean rep, with a company largely made up of the elderly and injured because all the professional young actors are in the army. Tonight's performance is King Lear, but Sir has gone missing.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Theatre review: Oil

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Once again I don't remember specifically booking a preview but it looks like the professional critics are in tomorrow.

Ella Hickson's plays have been steadily growing in size and scope, and Oil at the Almeida sees her take on not just a global issue but an epic story that spans centuries. In 19th century Cornwall, May (Anne-Marie Duff) lives on her husband's remote farm, a hand-to-mouth existence but she's genuinely in love with her husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale,) and the fact they can't keep their hands off each other makes it no surprise that she's pregnant. But when William Whitcomb (Sam Swann) arrives from America with a ridiculously generous offer to buy the farm as a UK base for his kerosene business, Joss turn him down and May can't forgive his lack of ambition. She steps out into the snow and on a journey that now takes on a surreal note. Because in the style of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, a few years pass for May, but many more pass in the world around her.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Theatre review: Confessional

This publicity image has nothing whatsoever to do with the show but who am I to discourage innovative advertising drives?

As well as his famous and much-revived melodramatic Southern sagas, there's a whole other Tennessee Williams canon of more experimental work, and coupled with Jack Silver's less than traditional staging I think if you went into Confessional not knowing who wrote it, you'd be unlikely to guess correctly. A collection of character studies rather than a narrative as such, it takes place in - as Williams wrote it - a California bar late at night, Monk (Raymond Bethley) pouring drinks for the regulars, most of whom were drunk before they even got there. It may be an atypical piece but it still revolves around a powerful female character, Leona (Lizzie Stanton,) a trailer park-dwelling beautician who's commemorating the anniversary of her brother's death. Drunk, but less so than anyone else there, she's having a moment of clarity and has decided to pack up her trailer and move on to somewhere new.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Theatre review: Travesties

Taking a few moments out from writing and directing everything at the National, Patrick Marber pops a bit further down the South Bank to the Menier to direct a revival of one of Tom Stoppard's better-known plays. Travesties is a treatise on the meaning and relevance of art, for its own sake or as a commentary on the state of the world, through the medium of a sometimes silly comedy seen through the muddled memory of a retired civil servant. Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) is a doddering figure reminiscing about his days working at the British Consulate in Zurich during the First World War, neutral Switzerland a strange kind of calm in the middle of Europe's chaos. As a result it's a focal point for artists and political thinkers, and Carr has dealings with James Joyce, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and the exiled Lenin.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Theatre review: The Tempest (Donmar King's Cross)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can't see any sign of the papers having been invited to this yet.

Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare productions were announced as a trilogy, and the theme of "red hands" that ran through the other two plays made me think Macbeth might be the final bloody part. As it turns out Lloyd's idea was actually to do one tragedy - the original Julius Caesar - one history - the condensed Henry IV - and one comedy, which turns out to be The Tempest. As with the other two productions, the framing device is that Shakespeare's play is being staged by the inmates of a women's prison, a setting that would seem to lend itself better to the other two genres, but in fairness this is one of the comedies that's rarely actually funny. Instead the more accurate term of "late romance" would seem particularly appropriate here, as the prison story focuses even more on a character whose backstory has been becoming more prominent over the trilogy, and who of course is also the real-life company's big name: Hannah, the character Harriet Walter uses in the framing device, based on a real American lifer with no hope of parole.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Theatre review: The Boys in the Band

A genuine classic of gay theatre - groundbreaking in its subject matter at the time, and with a clear influence on later writers' work - Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band gets revived by Adam Penford for the Park Theatre. A look at gay life in 1968 New York, its characters have found a subculture they feel reasonably safe in, but their sexuality is still something they need to keep behind closed doors. Michael (Ian Hallard) is hosting a birthday party for Harold (Mark Gatiss) who, as always, is expected to show up late. An early arrival is Donald (Daniel Boys,) Michael's on-off lover and a neurotic who's had to move out of the city as can't handle it full-time. The rest of the invited guests all soon turn up, as does an unexpected one - Michael's college roommate Alan (John Hopkins,) who hasn't been told about his friend's sexuality.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Theatre review: Adding Machine

Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt's Adding Machine, based on a 1923 piece of expressionism and getting its UK premiere from Josh Seymour at the Finborough, follows Mr Zero (Joseph Alessi,) who works in a large store, adding up figures in the back room. He's had the same job for 25 years, the same amount of time he's been married to Mrs Zero (Kate Milner-Evans,) who mainly screams abuse at him through the medium of opera. Zero believes that his 25-year anniversary at work will surely be marked with a promotion to the front store, but in fact his boss (James Dinsmore) cheerfully informs him he's being fired and replaced with an adding machine. Zero's reaction to being discarded is violent, and he soon finds himself on Death Row alongside Shrdlu (Edd Campbell Bird,) a highly religious murderer who's looking forward to getting tortured in Hell for his crimes.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Theatre review: The Rover, or, The Banish'd Cavaliers

Best-remembered today as England's first female professional writer (although it turns out in the 19th Century her name was a euphemism for a reet dorty hoor, society having decided that "female professional writer" wasn't actually something they were ready for yet, thanks,) Aphra Behn's most famous play is The Rover, or, The Banish'd Cavaliers. The subtitle sets the action a couple of decades before the play's writing, during the exile of the prince who would eventually be Restored as Charles II. His followers, equally unwelcome in England during Cromwell's rule, had a mixed reputation, seen by some as accomplished soldiers, by others as thrill-seekers lacking morals. Behn gives us just such a mixed picture - veering towards the latter - in her quartet of Cavaliers who end up in an unnamed Spanish town during Carnival season, and intend to make the most of its spirit.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Theatre review: Imogen (Shakespeare's Globe)

Not that theatrical trends are weird and unpredictable, but this time last year I'd only ever seen one production of Cymbeline - and that would have been twenty-odd years ago - but I've since seen it three more times. It's enough to make even this bonkers plot familiar, but the Globe's version makes it clear it's got something different in mind: Matthew Dunster has retitled Shakespeare's play Imogen to put focus back on the character who actually has the most to do; but it also has the effect of warning the audience not to expect the familiar, not a bad idea in a season that's famously angered the traditionalists (or at least those confident they know best what that tradition actually is.) It turns out Imogen becomes the star turn of Emma Rice's first summer season by exemplifying its theme of experimentation that may or may not work - but of all the new productions, finding a lot more that does work.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Theatre review: R and D

After its usual summer lull Hampstead Downstairs starts its new season with Simon Vinnicombe's R and D, a short sci-fi take on grief and betrayal. Lewis (Aden Gillett) is a writer who lost his wife a year ago, and whose moving eulogy for her went viral; the resulting popularity has only driven him further into grief and seclusion. His brother David (Martin Hutson) is a scientist working at some mysterious institute, the nature of which becomes apparent when he asks Lewis to take part, in return for a large fee, in some research and development on a long-running project. April (Jess Murphy) is a highly-realistic humanoid robot, and David and his team have reached the end of what they can find out in the lab. They want Lewis to spend time alone with her and report back on how convincingly human April can be.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Theatre review: The Complete Deaths

Just in case you haven't been paying attention - not just to this blog but to anything even remotely theatre-related - 2016 marks 400 years since the death of Shakespeare, and many companies (not the National) have been marking the occasion. They've mostly been doing this by staging his plays, which to be honest they do all the time anyway so it's not been altogether noticeable. Physical comedy troupe Spymonkey, though, have come up with a more fitting tribute to a morbid occasion with The Complete Deaths, which runs through the 65 deaths Shakespeare wrote (there's more than that in the canon, but for the purposes of this show only onstage deaths count) in a single evening. The framework is the classic comedy device of a company not quite on the same page, as Toby Park opens the show by announcing that after 18 years of silliness Spymonkey really need to go in a new, more serious direction and use these fictional deaths to explore dark realities.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Theatre review: Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3

Perhaps inspired by August Wilson's Century Cycle of plays exploring the African-American experience, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has created her own epic sequence, Father Comes Home From The Wars, that looks at the legacy of slavery in America. It's a series of nine plays following a single family down the centuries, and the Royal Court here presents Jo Bonney's original Off-Broadway production of the first three in the sequence, with a largely British cast. These three sections of the story take place during the American Civil War, and the central figure is the dubiously-named Hero (Steve Toussaint,) whose master has promised him his freedom if he serves with him in the Confederate Army. Part 1 opens as the other slaves wait for day to break, taking bets on whether Hero will decide to stay or go.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Theatre review: The Greater Game

Another football-related First World War play doesn't look, this time, at amateur kickabouts in No Man's Land, but at professional players who were the predecessors of the kind of superstar footballers you get today. Michael Head's The Greater Game sees lifelong friends Mac (Peter Hannah) and Jonas (Will Howard) playing semi-professional football in Newcastle as well as working down a mine, when they're given the opportunity to turn professional with a transfer to Clapton Orient. It means uprooting their wives to London, and although the women take a long time to settle there the men quickly become beloved members of the team, Mac as the star player while the female fans inundate Jonas with love letters. But there's a war on, and while the official line is that it'll be over by Christmas, there's also an increasing voice that sportsmen should be leaving their games behind and joining the troops.

Theatre review: Out There

While Elliot Davis and James Bourne's first stage musical, Loserville, was unfairly maligned by the press, it's also true that it felt like it had gone too big too quickly with a West End run, and it did a lot better a couple of years later as a fringe show. So it's back to the Union Theatre (albeit in its new location across the road) and to director Michael Burgen that they return for the first outing of their sophomore effort. On the evidence so far, Davis & Bourne's niche is a British take on Americana: After the high school antics of Loserville we have the space race, dysfunctional fathers and sons, and a brash stranger finding redemption in a small town and saving it in the process, in Out There.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Theatre review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and tour)

The "tiny" touring actor-musician Shakespeare productions haven't quite become a casualty of the Globe's new regime as Nick Bagnall returns to direct The Two Gentlemen of Verona, although the home lap of the tour now has a different venue, being squeezed into the Swanamaker rather than the main house. The candlelit Jacobean playhouse is a bit of an odd fit for Katie Sykes' mini-stage and a 1960s-themed take on Proteus (Dharmesh Patel,) who's sworn undying love to Julia (Leah Brotherhead,) but first has to make a trip to Milan to visit his friend Valentine (Guy Hughes,) who's been serving the Duke there. Valentine is in love with the Duke's daughter Sylvia (Aruhan Galieva,) a match he's not considered good enough for, and so the two have planned to elope, a plan he's shared with Proteus.