Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Theatre review: Master Class

Last summer I went on holiday to New York, where one of the Broadway shows I had the option of seeing was Tyne Daly in Master Class. I picked something else instead, and regretted it when I got back, as Sharon Gless' A Round-Heeled Woman a couple of months back meant I could have seen both Cagney and Lacey on stage within a few months of each other. As it turns out, skipping Master Class in New York was the right move, because it's made the trip over here to the Vaudeville Theatre, so I got to complete the set on my home turf. And while Christine's show had its moments, Mary Beth's is in a different league. Terrence McNally's play looks at Maria Callas, taking inspiration from master classes she genuinely held in New York in 1970 after her singing career ended, and creating a fictionalised version of one that casts a light on the legendary Greek singer. Callas (Daly) may no longer be opera's biggest star but she's still every inch the diva, refusing to remember the session pianist's (Jeremy Cohen) name and criticising those members of the audience she can see for failing to come up with a unique sartorial look. Over the course of the show she also coaches three aspiring singers (Dianne Pilkington, Garrett Sorenson and Naomi O'Connell) in how to perform the arias, understanding the specific demands of the role and investing it with emotion, rather than just singing with technical excellence.

Daly gives a scenery-chewing performance but of course this is a role that demands nothing less. Callas' unforgiving comments come from a genuine desire to help her students, but the one-liners McNally provides her with still serve their purpose of being hugely entertaining. There's also the odd bitch about other opera stars (a student mentions Joan Sutherland - "Please! We must not talk about my colleagues! She tried her best.") It's all delivered with great timing, Daly shooting some looks as withering as her put-downs. The supporting cast are happy to be the foils for the central performance (as well as providing some of the live operatic singing the diva is no longer able to showcase.)

My only niggle with the play is with the moments (one in each act) where an aria transports Callas back to the time in her life she herself played that role. We see her re-enacting scenes with her first husband as well as her most famous lover, Aristotle Onassis. Though these are still well done they are a bit too long and ultimately I didn't think they were necessary - as if the playwright thought he'd be criticised if he missed out the odd flashback. In fact the play is at its best in the titular master class, offering not a biography but a very telling portrait, her occasional offhand comments about growing up in Greece during the War providing a wealth of understated background. The play has a topical heart about how art isn't easy but it is important, but it's wrapped up in a show that's entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud funny - this is one transfer from Broadway that's very welcome.

Master Class by Terrence McNally is booking until the 28th of April at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Theatre review: Port Authority

Conor McPherson's Port Authority shares a format with another Irish play I saw last year, Terminus: That of three monologues delivered in alternating sections. This time all three of the performers are men, of different ages. Kevin, (Andrew Nolan,) in his late teens or early twenties, has only just moved out of his parents' home, into a shared house whose other residents include the girl he's in love with. They're both seeing other people, and though at times there seems to be a spark between them, it looks unlikely they'll ever do anything about it. Dermot (Ardal O'Hanlon) is middle-aged, prone to drinking too much and rather contemptuous of his wife and all the weight she's put on. For reasons that elude him, he's been handed a huge promotion he's not qualified for. Sitting between the two in his motorised wheelchair is Joe (John Rogan.) He receives an unexpected package at his old people's home, which leads to reminiscences about a neighbour he once believed himself in love with, despite hardly knowing her.

McPherson's three stories are only very tenuously connected, though you can see the thematic similarities - there's a lot of regret here, often centred on the women they do end up with just as much as the ones that got away. While still the liveliest and cheeriest of them, Nolan's character may in some ways be the most tragic - though still at the start of his life, he's already making decisions that he knows he'll come to regret. As Kevin would put it, these three men share the same soul, and it's not a fighter's.

With plays structured in multiple storylines you're always looking for them to come together in some significant way. Port Authority's connections remain a bit vaguer than that (and the title's meaning eludes me) but this doesn't make for a disappointing end result. The individual stories are interesting enough, and the performers intense enough, that there's plenty to take from the evening. Director Tom Attenborough has kept all three actors sitting still for the whole thing, on Francesca Reidy's simple set of wooden palettes, but I didn't find it visually boring. Perhaps the amount of gesticulating, which I guess is indeed quite an Irish trait, helped with that. (Or maybe I just didn't mind looking at Nolan, who is a bit lovely.) Ian said he'd been trying to figure out why, despite being interested in all three narratives, he felt most invested in Dermot's, and that he realised it was because O'Hanlon was making a huge amount of eye contact. This is certainly very effective, although I will say we were in the front row, and he seemed to be looking at the front few rows almost constantly, so it may well be that people sitting further back didn't feel the same connection. Still, three excellent performances in a lyrical play that invites a certain amount of personal interpretation.

Port Authority by Conor McPherson is booking until the 18th of February at Southwark Playhouse's Vault.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Theatre review: King John (Union Theatre)

First Shakespeare of 2012 and the "feast or famine" theme from last year is still going strong - I've only seen King John once before, about ten years ago, but there's already two productions lined up. First up, the Union Theatre in Southwark. With Richard the Lionheart and his brother Geoffrey both dead, the crown has passed to runt of the litter John (Nicholas Osmond.) But in the unending conflicts between the neighbouring nations, the King of France (Damian Quinn) is supporting a claim by Geoffrey's son, Arthur. The main recollection I have from the last time I saw the play was it being surprisingly funny, and Phil Willmott's production goes full throttle for the comic potential in this play of political machinations - though there are battle scenes, this is essentially a story of deals and allegiances, and of the two countries' fates being pushed around by the Church's insistence on being obeyed. (At one point, having just suppressed a peace deal, the cardinal (Michael J Hayes) sits calmly eating a cake in the middle of the chaos he's just reignited.) Willmott avoids letting these political dealings drag by injecting a lot of pace as well as using some Gooldian overlapping scenes.

In its unexpected tone, which must make it a hard one to promote, and the political back-and-forths of the story, I can see on the one hand how King John remains comparatively unpopular; but there's other elements that you'd have thought would make it popular in performance, like the faint tone of absurdity and the relatively good roles for women. There's the feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine (Maggie Daniels) and Geoffrey's widow Constance (Samantha Lawson,) constantly interrupting peace talks and sometimes literally pushing her gormless son Arthur (Albert De Jongh) towards an English throne he's clearly as uninterested in as he is unsuitable for.

Embracing the story's ridiculous side can make performances tend towards the large side - Rikki Lawton as John's illegitimate nephew makes a risky performance choice with mixed results: At times his relentlessly hyperactive Philip The Bastard is a bit one-note, and feels like he's courting audience approval too much. But then there's times when this energy is an absolute gift to the role, especially in the second half. In fact although the first half is decent, it's after the interval that the show really comes to life. Osmond's John also comes into clearer focus, in essence an ambitious middle-manager whose reactions to the problems of power are woefully inadequate but who won't let this stop him from clinging on to the crown, even after his death. There's a healthy-sized cast for a fringe venue so while a slow starter, this King John ends up being a clear and entertaining production that in its modest way throws down the gauntlet to the RSC's upcoming version this summer.

King John by William Shakespeare is booking until the 11th of February at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Theatre review: The Trial of Ubu

Though I'd heard of absurdist classic Ubu Roi I've never seen it, so had a quick online search about it before going to see Simon Stephens' sequel of sorts, The Trial of Ubu. In fact Stephens opens his play with a recap, in puppet form, of Alfred Jarry's play and the fictional dictator's crimes, which gives us the background, as well as allaying the fears of anyone worried that the dog from the Family Ties end credits had been put on trial. This Punch and Judy show is an apt way to tell the crimes of Ubu, the original play having been a satire with a decidedly juvenile side (Jarry started writing it aged 15.) Stephens' twist is to have Ubu tried at the International Criminal Court, the century since the original play having furnished us with real life dictators whose atrocities make him seem less far-fetched.

Stephens teams up with director Katie Mitchell again, and although Ubu himself (Paul McCleary) does appear, it's only very briefly. Instead we almost entirely experience the trial through a pair of translators in their booth (Kate Duchêne and Nikki Amuka-Bird.) I can see how this approach will alienate people who feel robbed of the courtroom drama, but it's certainly an effective way of making the audience view the dark events described from a Brechtian distance. It also means we get a glimpse of how hearing these things recounted day in day out affects people just doing their job. It's a huge ask for the two actresses, Duchêne and Amuka-Bird carry the show not only by speaking out the dialogue of Ubu, his wife, his various generals and victims as well as all the legal teams, but also by giving us an idea of the personalities of characters who have no dialogue as themselves. We do get a glimpse of Ubu himself with his jailer (cute Rob Ostlere) as well as a couple of lawyers (Josie Daxter and George Taylor) disillusioned with the process itself, and so Stephens asks questions about who exactly these things are meant to be for. The opening puppet show proves to have been a good idea as we hear how grotesque comic horrors translate into reality - most notably a gag involving people being chucked down a trapdoor, and what that turns into once taken literally.

With such a strong conceit in the play itself Mitchell doesn't overburden the production with more big ideas but has gone for attention to detail in a clear presentation, the matter-of-factness echoed by Lizzie Clachan's set which extends the Hampstead Theatre's wood panel decor onto the stage. The huge chunks of speech by just two actresses do mean that despite their efforts there were occasional dips in my interest, but considering the format this was a surprisingly small percentage of the time. I can easily see why people might hate this piece (tonight's half-empty theatre was reminiscent of the "bad old days" of two years ago; I could make a comment about the consequences of Hampstead unceremoniously ditching their early booking incentive after a single hit season but.... I just basically did.) But while I wouldn't rush to see The Trial of Ubu again, I'm glad I did go.

The Trial of Ubu by Simon Stephens is booking until the 25th of February at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.
Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Theatre review: Travelling Light

Only a few months after the rather good The Last of the Duchess, another new play from Nicholas Wright, Travelling Light. Or, as I couldn't help thinking of it, Cinematographer on the Roof, since it sees Antony Sher channel his inner Tevye. Sometime in 1930s Hollywood, film-maker Maurice Montgomery (Paul Jesson) looks back on the early days of cinema when he was still called Motl Mendl, a minor journalist trapped in the almost-entirely Jewish village of his birth, in an unnamed part of Eastern Europe. (Christopher became rather fixated with figuring out the precise geographical location and was planning to scour the programme for clues. I was happy to accept that the story's fable-like nature meant the location was deliberately nebulous.) There, as he tells it, he more or less single-handedly created the motion picture industry.

One of the reasons I was keen to see this was because Motl is played by Damien Molony, who (as of the 5th of February) will be the new male lead in one of my favourite TV shows, Being Human. Fortunately he makes for a strong lead, his character is something of an amoral charmer which Molony pulls off very well. On a shallow note he's also pretty easy on the eye, and when his bare legs appear in a couple of scenes, that's not a bad thing. Nice toes too. What? It's a thing. The supporting cast is strong although Sher comes uncomfortably close to caricature. The real problem is the play itself. Wright's conceit is to play out the story of movies in microcosm in this little village. So Motl is the fractious director, Jacob (Sher,) the local mill owner who bankrolls the films represents the producers and Anna (Lauren O'Neil,) the girl they both have their eye on, the starlet. A small group of locals asked for their opinion become the first focus group, and soon everyone starts to stick their oar in. It's a simple conceit, too simple to carry a two-and-a-half hour play. By halfway through the first act we've got the idea, by the second act it's been stretched well past breaking point. Jesson looks awkward in the half-hearted framing device, his occasional, unnecessary interruptions of the action by wandering in through a back door are pretty twee. It also leads to a very problematic ending: I fully appreciate that the end is a reference to the convoluted twists in exactly the kind of melodrama these film-makers were producing; but irony only takes you so far and this is the ham-fisted ending we're left with.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of amusing moments of gentle humour. But gentle is just it, Travelling Light is a pretty slight piece that feels lost on the Lyttelton stage. I found it a really odd choice of play for the National to be staging, with Nicholas Hytner himself directing. Funnily enough Christopher had the exact opposite comment, that he found it typical, light post-Christmas National fare. At the interval, though we both saw flaws and upsides to the play, Christopher seemed slightly more positive about it. By the end though we were pretty much in agreement that this was an idea that might just about carry a one-act play, but ran out of steam in a full-length one.

Travelling Light by Nicholas Wright is booking in repertory until the 6th of March at the National Theatre's Lyttelton; then touring to Salford, Leeds, Aylesbury and Newcastle.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Theatre review: The Madness of George III

My first trip since starting this blog, to one of the theatres that gave it its title - although as I got an upgrade to the stalls, I can't report back on how much of the action you can see from the "cheap" seats: For once I could see all of the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue's stage. (This show only had its Press Night last night, I suspect upgrades won't be as easy to come by later in the run.) The Madness of George III, Alan Bennett's sympathetic portrayal of the king's mental and physical illness (retrospectively diagnosed as hereditary porphyria, the blue piss being the giveaway symptom) gets its first London revival in Christopher Luscombe's production. Having starred in the (notoriously retitled) film version, Nigel Hawthorne is strongly identified with the title role, but Luscombe has cast the part well: David Haig, the country's foremost purveyor of sweaty panic, makes the role seem like it was written for him, and is hugely likeable as the monarch has the tables turned by doctors who suddenly find themselves with absolute power over him.

Bennett's play comfortably balances two aspects of the story, the private one of "Mr King"'s illness, and the constitutional crisis it provokes. With his heir Prince George, later George IV (Christopher Keegan) supporting Fox's (Gary Oliver) opposition, the opportunity to have the Prince installed as Regent is a threat to the Prime Minister, and the king's favourite, Pitt the Younger (Nicholas Rowe.) The play juggles the various plots and shifting allegiances, both in politics and among the doctors vying to get their choice of bizarre remedy adhered to (and Bennett gets a lot of comic mileage out of the genuine medical ignorance of the time.) The production originated at Theatre Royal Bath, which always gives me some trepidation as I find its house style to be a very stilted "Heritage Theatre." Though not smelling of mothballs to quite the extent of some past productions, there is still something unadventurous about this, something of Bennett's mischievous side is missing from proceedings. The supporting cast is strong (Beatie Edney is warmly sympathetic as "Mrs King") but struggle to get noticed in a show centred so strongly on its protagonist. At least Haig is excellent, reining in some of his tendency towards overselling a performance, and pitching the king just right. Plus the second act is stronger than the first, which is always the better way round.

The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett is booking until the 31st of March at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Theatre review: Constellations

So far I've had a 50/50 response to Nick Payne's plays: If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet I liked, Wanderlust I was less convinced by. The former's star Rafe Spall reunites with Payne for the playwright's most high concept play yet, and his strongest. Constellations attempts to put quantum multiverse theory on stage in the form of a tragicomic relationship. Spall and Sally Hawkins play Roland and Marianne, a couple who meet at a barbecue and... What happens next depends on which universe we're in, as the short scenes are repeated with (often small) variations that can lead to very different results. This may be the only conversation they ever share, or they may get together. He might cheat on her, or maybe she cheats on him, and they separate. A fair amount of time later they meet again by chance and may or may not rekindle their relationship, even get married. As we watch these variables develop, every so often we jump to the end of the play, which in almost all the realities will have a sad conclusion. In its intimate way it's an ambitious play that economically says a lot about the decisions we make from one moment to the next.

With new plays the attention tends to be on the writing but the nature of Constellations makes us very aware of the work director Michael Longhurst and his cast have put in. The scenes sometimes differ by only a single word or not even that, leaving a lot of the variation in how things turn out down to nuance - how much saying something in a jokey way, or seriously, or in a hurt tone, can affect great chunks of your future. Andy (who hadn't seen If There Is... but enjoyed Wanderlust) was already a big fan of Hawkins', but he particularly mentioned Spall's subtlety in how he differentiated the alternate realities. Tom Scutt's design is very simple, the ceiling full of white balloons, the floor tiled in honeycomb shapes as a nod to Roland's job as a beekeeper. One problem though is that a raised in-the-round stage in a small space means you're often being blinded by looking straight into the lights, especially when the lighting (by Lee Curran) changes suddenly, as is part of the production's aesthetic. And though no fault of Payne's, I think 2012 has already used up its quota of a certain downbeat meme. Seriously, ENOUGH NOW. That aside, a haunting and unique experience.

Constellations by Nick Payne is booking until the 11th of February at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.
Strobe lighting is used frequently.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Theatre review: Execution of Justice

Written in 1982 and revised a few times subsequently, Execution of Justice dramatises the trial of Dan White (Philip Duguid-McQuillan,) who assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone and, more famously, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold political office in the US. Despite having gone to great lengths to smuggle his gun into the building, as well as reloading it between the two murders, White was only found guilty of manslaughter by the jury. Emily Mann's verbatim play seeks to explore why this verdict was reached, and is for the most part a reconstruction of the trial. Southwark Playhouse's main house is in traverse for Joss Bennathan's well-acted production. There are a few additional touches to the narrative, like testimony being intercut with snatches of interviews with people on the street (sometimes this overlapping's done a bit too much, especially as there's a tendency to cut characters off mid-sentence.)

This fairly literal interpretation does mean the play is as likely as a real trial to vary in interest depending on what evidence is being given. There's some longueurs as the details of White's actions on the day are painstakingly gone over. By far the most fascinating aspect is in the psychological evidence given to back up White's defence of diminished responsibility (made infamous as the "Twinkie Defence" after the argument that White's junk food diet was connected to his state of mind.) The fact that the play uses the exact words makes it all the more apparent what unashamed gibberish was seized on by a jury eager for an excuse to acquit. (Mann's play is pretty sympathetic to the prosecution team's efforts, but the fact remains they signed off on a jury that almost entirely had a similar background to White.)

I also enjoyed Madeleine Bowyer's performance as a prosecution witness with no intention of going anywhere until she's had her say. But while I found the production decent, I felt the play itself could be snappier. Ian said he really enjoyed it (even if we were both distracted by how much Ben Mars as the prosecutor looked like someone we know; though this wasn't as distracting as the behaviour of one group in the audience, who repeatedly strode out loudly, smirking, to get more drinks at the bar, until they were obviously stopped from re-entering.) For me, although not without its merits, the play made me think how far verbatim theatre has come since this was written.

Execution of Justice by Emily Mann is booking until the 4th of February at Southwark Playhouse.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Theatre review: Our New Girl

There's another kitchen on the stage of the new Bush (this time arranged in thrust by designer Morgan Large) but it's a posher and, on the surface, more ordered space than the last one. Heavily-pregnant Hazel (Kate Fleetwood) is a former lawyer, now attempting to distribute organic olive oil from home in order to spend more time with first child Daniel (Jude Willoughby tonight, alternating with Jonathan Teale.) There's hints of We Need To Talk About Kevin in Nancy Harris' Our New Girl as Hazel's nervous energy and hassled demeanour gradually reveal that she feels a disconnect from her son - she's uncomfortable around him, perhaps even afraid. Her husband is the impossibly dashing plastic surgeon Richard (Mark Bazeley,) who alternates between raking in the cash botoxing wealthy women's faces and spending months saving burn victims in Haiti (he first appears complete with douchebag-standard tasselled scarf.) Hazel's feeling of being the only one not in control in her own house only gets worse when, without consulting or even warning her, Richard hires young Irish nanny Annie (Denise Gough) to help her out (or possibly keep an eye on her as much as on Daniel?)

Fleetwood is excellent as ever, she's very good at these frustrated, nervy characters but occasionally displays the steel and attention to detail Hazel used in her former life as a barrister. (This choice of former career amused me, and only me; as I may have mentioned once or twice [a minute] I was in a play with Kate Fleetwood about 18 years ago, and we played opposing counsel.) I think my interpretation of Our New Girl is essentially the story of a woman attempting to gain the same control over her family life as she once had over her work. But the way it's told is somewhere between domestic drama and thriller. The opening moments give the audience an insight that may affect which side we fall on, but there's a question over whether Daniel's behaviour is unusually bad and his father too lenient, or if it's all in his mother's head because she never bonded with him. (Hazel is frequently accused of complaining about #FirstWorldProblems and not knowing how good she's got it.) There's no easy answers, Charlotte Gwimmer's production certainly plays up the mystery/thriller element and there's moments when I was desperately impatient to see how this was all going to play out. There's an Act II plot development that's rather disappointingly obvious but at least it has interesting repercussions. Well-performed by all four actors and featuring some moments of sharp comedy among the tension, I'd recommend this if you fancy something entertaining whose next move you can't always predict.

Our New Girl by Nancy Harris is booking until the 11th of February at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Theatre review: The Art of Concealment

Last year, Terence Rattigan's centenary brought some high-profile revivals and a reappraisal of the playwright's work. This year we get The Art of Concealment, a look at the man himself. Though I've enjoyed Rattigan's plays, it was more the prospect of Dominic Tighe as the younger Terry who attracted me to the show, than the biographical aspect. And writer Giles Cole falls into a couple of major traps associated with biographical plays, most obviously in trying to tell the whole life story in a couple of hours, rather than concentrating on a couple of key incidents or relationships. So we join Rattigan at Harrow before jumping to his dropping out of Oxford and his career taking off just before the War. After the interval we have his drop in popularity after the attacks by the Kitchen Sink playwrights of the 1960s. In a rather old-fashioned narrative, the story is told though the reminiscences of the older Rattigan (Alistair Findlay,) who occasionally limps onto the stage to take us to the next chapter, and swaps places with Tighe once we get to the playwright's latter years.

Tighe is suitably sexy and charming as the young Terry but in trying to get the facts crammed in he's given a clunky, exposition-heavy script to try and bring to life. Most of the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular (though Christopher Morgan's over-gesticulating Cuthbert got old fast) but some of the dialogue just crashes to the ground - at one point we actually have it pointed out that Rattigan's musings on one of his characters are in fact a reflection on himself. (In what I think is another classic mistake, we see Rattigan and his then-lover Kenneth (Daniel Bayle) act out a scene from The Browning Version, which is only ever going to make the play's own dialogue pale in comparison.)

Rattigan went to great pains to conceal his sexuality from the public, and though this forms a major part of this story it's also treated with a similar coyness: It's just as well Tighe looks good in costumes that include a tux and an RAF uniform, as you won't see him out of them. Charlie Hollway as his younger American lover is the only one who manages to briefly bring some sexuality into Knight Mantell's clinical production. (Though I would have found Hollway sexier if his hairdo for this show didn't appear to be modelled on my mum's.) Similarly, when the playwright is confronted by Aunt Edna (Judy Buxton,) an imaginary representation of his dwindling fanbase, she concludes he brought on his own downfall by continuing to party in the post-war austerity years. But these constant parties were only ever alluded to, the only social life we've actually seen has mainly involved his small coterie of already-bitter queens. Ultimately the title is a bit too apt, The Art of Concealment doesn't reveal much about its subject.

The Art of Concealment by Giles Cole is booking until the 28th of January at Jermyn Street Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Theatre review: Lovesong

For the second night in a row I'm at a play featuring a long-married couple right at the end of the woman's life, which is a bit unfortunate as it's hard to take tonight's show entirely on its own merits. At least Frantic Assembly's Lovesong is the superior show by some way. Written by Abi Morgan, Lovesong shows us British dentist Billy and his librarian wife Maggie, who moved to small-town America about 40 years ago, alternating between those early days of their marriage and the final week as Maggie prepares for her death. Edward Bennett and Leanne Rowe play the young couple, Sam Cox and Siân Phillips their older selves. The action is kept pretty simple but stays interesting throughout, the younger duo creating their memories together, the older not always recalling them as they package up the belongings they've built up along the way. (One stark contrast with And No More Shall We Part is that here Maggie's decision to choose when she dies has been made and discussed offstage, Morgan's narrative more interested in presenting the whole picture of how this rounds off the couple's life, than in presenting the moral dilemmas.)

This being Frantic Assembly, directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett keep things visually interesting with sparingly-used projections and ventures into dance - though at times they jar, at others these movement sequences add much to the show's heart, and Carolyn Downing's sound design is hauntingly used. The performances are excellent as you'd expect, although knowing how good a comic actor Ed Bennett is, it always feels a bit of a waste seeing him in a straight drama.

The story is overshadowed by the couple's inability to have a child (I think the point of them having moved to America was to have them take a while to make friends, leaving them with only each other in the absence of a child) and once again there's suggestions of infidelity (though here it felt more organically integrated into their life story.) Jan was my theatre companion tonight and he felt the fact we largely saw them in difficult times was suggesting they'd had unhappy lives overall. I wouldn't agree, I thought the way the older couple were still going strong said that ultimately we were being shown a happy relationship. The unfortunate timing of another of my accidental "theme weeks" meant I was kept at a bit more of a distance than I might perhaps have been. No such problem for much of the audience, which despite the Lyric Hammersmith's usual high percentage of (well-behaved¹) school parties contained rather a lot of audible sobbing by the end.

Lovesong by Abi Morgan is booking until the 4th of February at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

¹except for the one girl in the row in front of us who I'm sure spent much more time looking at her phone's brightly glowing screen than at the stage

Monday, 16 January 2012

Theatre review: And No More Shall We Part

January's happy wacky fun party continues with a play about assisted suicide. Tom Holloway's And No More Shall We Part is the latest show in Hampstead's Downstairs season, and sees terminally ill Pam attempting to take her own life before her unspecified illness robs her of her dignity. On a small revolve, the action alternates between Pam's deathbed, where the pills are taking longer than expected to take effect, and the days leading up to it, starting when she tells her horrified husband Don what she intends.

Dearbhla Molloy and Bill Paterson's performances are masterclasses in quiet dignity and the play is undoubtedly possessed of some very moving moments. These come out of the blue to grab you by the throat at times but unfortunately this is partly because, for the majority of the 85 minutes, both the play itself and James Macdonald's direction stick monotonously to the same pace, which makes for a soporific effect: At times I was conscious of myself both admiring Molloy's performance as Pam desperately tries to go to sleep for good, and at the same time trying to keep myself awake.

The odd staging is also a bit of a distraction. Hannah Clark's set puts the furniture of a cosy family home on a revolve and backdrop covered in shiny black tile; while two of the stage management team are visible at the sides of the stage, operating the lighting and sound boards and occasionally taking props up to the actors. I was at a bit of a loss as to what this ostentatiously Brechtian staging was meant to signify. There are some plus points to the script - I was torn over my response to Pam refusing all of Don's requests, like having their children present: At times I felt she was being selfish as he was the one who'd be left behind with the consequences of how she died, at others I thought denying his wishes was a kindness to make sure he wasn't left feeling responsible. But the loving couple revealing affairs from several years previously feels like a standard trope that comes out of nowhere (if in need of emergency character points, break glass) and goes nowhere. And while the performances are excellent, I wished they'd been given more to explore about their characters than just his frustration and her serene stoicism.

And No More Shall We Part by Tom Holloway is booking until the 11th of February at Hampstead Theatre's Michael Frayn Space.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Stage-to-screen review: Sea Wall

Diversifying just a tiny bit from theatre reviews, I don't think I'll be going so far as to review films with a theatrical connection but direct stage-to-screen transfers might occasionally pop up (I haven't decided yet whether the forthcoming BBC Histories will fall into this category.) A bit more straightforward is the filmed version of a show I missed a couple of years ago when it played the Bush, Simon Stephens' Sea Wall. And it's not bad timing as it's a monologue for Andrew Scott, who's back in people's minds at the moment after last night's Sherlock finale. Like most monologues it's a tricky one to review without giving too much away - however much the narrator might veer off the subject, as a dramatic form it tends to be pretty to-the-point. But it's probably not too spoilery to say it builds to a heartbreaking conclusion, from the start it's clear Alex's (Scott) amiable reminiscences about his family, specifically his wife, daughter and father-in-law, are leading up to something devastating.

For this filmed version the audience is replaced with a video camera Alex has set up, which is apt as at its heart the monologue is a confession of what he believes is one of the worst things he's ever done, the video could easily be a message he can't bring himself to say to someone's face. Monologues always end up being most memorable for the actor's performance as there's nowhere for them to hide so it's worth noting first that Stephens has written (and co-directed, with Andrew Porter) a multi-layered script that gives Scott so many different elements to play with, including one seemingly callous comment that many might have shied away from for fear of it making their lead unsympathetic, but which felt painfully real to me. While I'm sorry to have missed this live, it must have been pretty intense, Scott laying himself open just as much as the script does. I know there's a a few people who remain unconvinced by Scott's Moriarty, which was of course a very deliberately arch performance; if you're among those people Sea Wall should make you think otherwise, and for £3.50 to download is surely worth a go.

Sea Wall by Simon Stephens is available to download from seawallandrewscott.com.

Running time: 35 minutes.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Theatre review: Huis Clos

Yep, it's definitely January - after the fluffier fare of XmasTM there's a definite heavier mood to London's theatre - even Noises Off feels a long time ago as the final Donmar Trafalgar instalment takes us to Hell. In a Shock!Twist! it turns out Trafalgar 2 is in fact a flexible space, Paul Hart's production of Huis Clos being configured in the round. Designer Lucy Osborne gives us a distressed, hotel-like room but with no bed, only three "second Empire" chairs or couches and a couple of seemingly random objects whose relevance will surely become apparent to the room's new inhabitants. Garcin (Will Keen) is (or was) a South American journalist who mistreated his wife when alive, Ines (Michelle Fairley) a predatory lesbian murderer and Estelle (Fiona Glascott) a beautiful, cold-hearted French socialite. They are all recently deceased and though they don't know quite what the rules are yet they do know they're in Hell. The valet (Thomas Padden) who shows them in is quite used to the newcomers' confused questions about where the torturers are.

Of course, as the most famous quote from Sartre's play has it, Hell is other people, and the trio gradually realise they are to be each other's torturers. Not only because the combination of people has been chosen to clash but also because, as is repeatedly affirmed from the start, the room contains no mirrors: The damned must instead see themselves through their cellmates' eyes, stripped of the illusions they project onto themselves to make existence more bearable. The atmosphere in Hart's production is always intense and uncomfortable as befits the subject matter while Tom Mills' snatches of music and sound add atmosphere at unexpected moments. Although at times it's all a bit too much and the play felt a bit overly long to me, the points made more times than necessary and I did wonder if it was the characters or the audience who were meant to be in Hell (the front row of the seating bank opposite me seemed to be a designated napping area.) But it's powerfully performed, Fairley's character in particular taking a perverse glee in their situation that adds another level of the sinister to what was hardly a party to begin with.

Huis Clos by Jean Paul Sartre in a translation by Stuart Gilbert is booking until the 28th of January at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Theatre review: Fog

Actor Toby Wharton's first play is co-written with veteran playwright Tash Fairbanks, who was his mother's partner, and was born out of piece they wrote for his (successful) audition for RADA. So as Wharton was raised by a lesbian couple Fog can't be too directly autobiographical, dealing as it does with problems faced by children raised in care. After his mother's death, Gary (Wharton) and his sister Lou (Annie Hemingway) were left in care and their father Cannon (Victor Gardener) spent the next decade in the army. As the play opens, Cannon is suddenly back in town, renting a flat at the top of an East London estate, from where Gary can see the care home he spent many unhappy years in.

Although it still betrays the fact that it was written as a showcase for its lead actor, Fog also offers opportunities for the rest of the cast to make their mark. Gary's relationship with best friend Michael (Benjamin Cawley) is nicely played, and heartbreaking when cracks appear in it. Kanga Tanikye-Buah provides good comic relief as Michael's businesslike sister, and the whole play has moments of lightness to balance out the pretty dark accusations it makes about the care system. Ultimately of course it is the lead who's the most fleshed-out character, and Wharton gives us a teenager with an aggressive, cocky attitude (the title comes from the MC name Gary unsuccessfully demands he be called by) which barely conceals the fragile child he still is. At times the play is a bit heavy-handed with its politics, and sometimes sticks with the same groups of characters for longer than is interesting. But there's certainly some affecting stuff in Ché Walker's production too, and by the end you feel for Gary and his likely bleak outlook.

Fog by Tash Fairbanks and Toby Wharton is booking until the 28th of January at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Theatre review: The Kreutzer Sonata

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Although this is a returning production, the performance reviewed was technically a preview.

Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell may have finished their programme as Artistic Directors of the Gate but we have a bit longer to wait to see what Christopher Haydon will bring as the outgoing regime gets to do an encore: Abrahami's 2009 production The Kreutzer Sonata returns with the same cast and creatives. Tolstoy imagined his 1889 short story being publicly performed to the accompaniment of live music, so Nancy Harris' adaptation turns it into a monologue for Pozdynyshev (Hilton McRae.) A train journey brings on a confessional mood for Pozdynyshev and we get the story of his wife's suspected infidelity, and the Beethoven piece that the narrator blames. Designer Chloe Lamford's train compartment set is smashed up, aptly introducing a violent tone, and it uses the Gate's deep stage to provide background images to the story: As well as occasional projections the carriage walls also go transparent to reveal Sophie Scott and Tobias Beer, acting out the other two sides of the love triangle and providing the aforementioned music (piano and violin respectively.)

Though effective, these visuals are sparingly used, the piece ultimately being a showcase for McRae's tightly wound-up performance, shaking for most of the time with suppressed fury that only rarely, but devastatingly, gets unleashed. The Kreutzer Sonata is an intense little piece with a well-maintained sense of menace.

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, adapted by Nancy Harris, is booking until the 18th of February at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Theatre review: Noises Off

Michael Frayn's double-sided farce Noises Off is regularly described as the funniest play of all time, which has to be a bit of a poison chalice: It has a lot to live up to and needs a spectacularly well-timed cast to actually do so. Fortunately Lindsay Posner at the Old Vic has assembled just this kind of cast and choreographed them to perfection.

The play-within-a-play is called Nothing On, and our first experience of it is at the tech rehearsal, doubling as a dress rehearsal, as the first night's hours away. Celia Imrie's Dotty is bankrolling the production and also playing housekeeper Mrs Clackett¹. Like most of the under-rehearsed cast, she's having trouble remembering her lines and the complex moves that largely involve plates of sardines. Among the cast is Selsdon (Karl Johnson,) drunk and frequently disappearing, so exhausted stage manager Tim (Paul Ready) is constantly called on to stand in for him. While the actors all struggle through their tech, the real audience gets an idea of how Nothing On is meant to run. After the interval we join them backstage at a matinee midway through the run, where the onstage farce is barely held together as the actors, now sick of each other's company, have even more chaos behind the scenes. The fact that one of the stars (Amy Nuttall) and the ASM (Aisling Loftus) now know that the director (Robert Glenister) has been sleeping with both of them, doesn't help, and his constantly foiled attempts to placate them with flowers is a highlight. With one series of mishaps and misunderstandings on one side of the set and another on the other, this central act is sublime madness.

If there's a downside to the play it's that this is a hard act to follow and our final experience of the play, which takes us back to the audience's point of view for the final performance, can't live up to the middle section. Although there's still a lot of entertainment to be had as the action falls apart in a whole new way and Nuttall's Brooke is unable to stray from the script no matter what goes wrong².

Though I've seen the film before this is my first Noises Off on stage, and it seems to me much of the reason it's held in such high regard is the way it hangs a lantern on the mechanics of farce, how hard it is for the actors to make all the right "mistakes" and how easily it can go wrong. Fortunately Posner's cast don't put a foot wrong - or rather they constantly put a foot wrong, in all the right places.

Noises Off by Michael Frayn is booking until the 10th of March at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

¹Evil Alex commented that after being known for playing Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques, this costume sees Imrie looking more like Mrs Overall

²in which respect she was rather like our jobsworth usher tonight: I wanted Alex to take a picture of me peering around one of the Old Vic's many pillars for my userpic on this blog, to illustrate "Partially Obstructed View," but she forbade it. Then after the show she insisted we leave by the side door "because it's quicker" despite me saying I needed to go out the main way to use the loo. So I had to go out the side of the building then fight my way back in again. She's clearly been given a script of rules for the audience and this was NOT TO BE DEVIATED FROM!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Theatre review: The Animals and Children Took to the Streets

Having started at BAC and toured extensively, multimedia company 1927 (named after the year Fritz Lang's Metropolis was released) play a short run at the Cottesloe with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets. Suzanne Andrade, Esme Appleton and Lillian Henley, in white face paint, play all the roles against the backdrop of Paul Barritt's projections. The animations have the feel of 1980s Eastern European cartoons and there's Cyrillic-style text but the unnamed city has a touch of London about it as well. Crumbling estate The Bayou is as infested with children as it is with cockroaches, and when some of them invade a local park in protest at their living conditions, the city's Mayor comes up with a drastic solution to keep the underclasses quiet.

The dark political fairytale also features an unrequited love story between The Bayou's caretaker (voiced by James Addie) and an idealistic newcomer to the estate. The show's political message may not be subtle but it's performed with a light touch and many moments of humour. In what is still a developing new genre, it also features probably the best-coordinated interaction between live actors and animated elements I've seen yet. It's a rather charming show with its own particular aesthetic, and an interesting start to 2012, even if I'm not entirely sure what it's all about.

I saw this with Richard, who has an unusual track record in picking shows with unexpected male nudity in them; before tonight's show started I mentioned that, with an all-female cast, this at least would be an exception. So I got a nudge halfway through the show when a naked cartoon man, running down the street with bouncing genitals, appeared on the screen.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets by Suzanne Andrade and 1927 is booking until the 3rd of January at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Partially Obstructed View

Welcome to Partially Obstructed View, my new theatre blog. I started a personal blog, So anyway, back in 2006 but over the years it became more and more dominated by my theatre reviews. So anyone wanting to read a personal blog would have mainly found reviews, while theatre fans would have found them regularly broken up with my personal rants and faux-insightful commentary on the X Factor. Which is where this new site comes in and from the start of 2012 all my reviews of theatre, mainly in and around That London, will be here. Have a look at the About Me page if you want to know more about where I'm coming from and what influences my opinions; and my reviews up to the end of 2011 can be found on the theatre reviews tag on my personal blog. Hope you enjoy the upcoming posts, and do let me know if they ever steer you towards a great show you might otherwise have missed.