Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Theatre review: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore

Last year Cheek By Jowl provided me with one of my favourite shows of 2011 with their Russian Tempest. And the last time I saw 'Tis Pity She's A Whore it starred Eve Best and Jude Law as the siblings who think incest makes the heart grow fonder. So on a couple of different levels this was a show that had a lot to live up to for me. John Ford's play is one of few Jacobean tragedies to have held on to much of its shock value thanks to its incestuous theme, but Declan Donnellan doesn't sit back and let this do all the work for him. Nick Ormerod's blood-red set is Annabella's bedroom, the bed where the dirty deed is done is the centrepiece, and among the posters on her wall True Blood takes pride of place, a clue maybe that subtlety isn't going to be the key note. Annabella (Lydia Wilson) is a much sought-after beauty and heiress with a number of dedicated suitors, chief among them Soranzo (Jack Hawkins.) But she only has eyes for her brother Giovanni (Jack Gordon) and when he confesses similar feelings towards her the scene is set for sex, violence and synchronised dance sequences.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Theatre review: Lay Down Your Cross

After the high-concept, high pace of his recent hit Constellations, another change of pace from playwright Nick Payne to something a lot more measured and naturalistic. In Lay Down Your Cross, Will Fricker's set takes us to the small flat where Tony (Andy de la Tour) lives on his own following his divorce - Emma Laxton's detailed sound design helps create a very realistic, lived-in environment. It's the night before his son Adam's funeral and Tony is waiting for daughter Dawn (Lucy Phelps) to arrive from Australia, where she's been living for the last couple of years. The play takes place over a little over 24 hours during which we also meet Tony's drunken ex-wife Grace (Susan Wooldridge) and Adam's girlfriend Raph (Angela Terence.) As the play goes on, Dawn discovers that her soldier brother didn't die in action like she originally thought.

Payne's examination of guilt, grief and attempts to apportion blame is sensitively and believably written and holds the attention without outstaying its welcome. Clare Lizzimore's production is suitably understated with four strong performances - Terence has a relatively small role but is hugely moving as she reads a note Adam left her and realises she's not to blame for his death. Lay Down Your Cross does what it sets out to do but after a while I couldn't help feeling it wasn't covering any new ground. The most interesting direction it takes is in looking at Tony's impossible choices with regards to his children's decisions - wanting to be supportive but not necessarily agreeing with what they do - and I wished we'd had more of this than simply the subjects of grief and the less "heroic" side of the military, which are the main themes. I think this struck me especially as the Hampstead Downstairs season is always promoted as a safe place for creatives to experiment. Lay Down Your Cross is quietly moving, well-written and performed, but experimental, original or daring it is not.

Lay Down Your Cross by Nick Payne is booking until the 24th of March at Hampstead Theatre's Michael Frayn Space.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Filter / Lyric Hammersmith)

They do say you shouldn't choose which shows to see solely on the basis of one cast member, and it can backfire. After having happily decided to give Filter's productions a miss in future, I relented for their new A Midsummer Night's Dream as Rhys Rusbatch was in it. Unfortunately the production seems to have shed him somewhere along the tour and it arrives at the Lyric Hammersmith without him. So what would I make of the latest Shakespeare adaptation from a company whose work I've found very problematic in the past?

Things don't start well as Ed Gaughan's Peter Quince opens the show with a bit of stand-up that uses the play's royal wedding as a prompt for such unique, never-before-made observations as the fact that the Royal Family is German, and that Camilla Parker-Bowles looks a bit like a horse. Once we get going properly though, the company seem to have got over, for now at least, some of the issues I've objected to in the past. Most importantly, though still inventive and silly, I no longer got the impression that Filter were having an onstage party for their own benefit, and should the audience happen to enjoy it as well, that's incidental.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Theatre review: The Recruiting Officer

Captain Plume has been courting Silvia for some time, and Mr Worthy has been courting her cousin Melinda. But when both women come into unexpected fortunes, the men find themselves socially inferior to their prospective brides, and so no longer considered worthy of marrying them. Josie Rourke opens her first season at the Donmar Warehouse with George Farquhar's 18th Century comedy set in Shrewsbury, where Plume (Tobias Menzies) is on the hunt for more soldiers for the endless wars in Europe. Together with his recruiting officer Sergeant Kite (Mackenzie Crook) he's more than willing to use underhand tactics to get the local men to sign up.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Theatre review: Absent Friends

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is due to arrive in That London soon but first there's another revival from his huge back catalogue. We're back in the '70s for Absent Friends, one of his bleak comedies of awkwardness and middle-class disappointment. Designer Tom Scutt doesn't get to do one of his more expressionistic sets this time but he's just as adept at bringing the decade taste forgot back to life in all its orange, brown and queasy green glory. The well-off middle-class living room is dominated by a garish wall clock as well as lots of other nice touches - the crocodile seemed particularly true to the time period to me. This is the home of Di (Katherine Parkinson) and Paul (Steffan Rhodri,) on a Saturday afternoon when they're about to have a tea party. Di's holding it to cheer up Colin (Reece Shearsmith,) a friend they haven't seen for a while, whose fiancée recently drowned. But Paul has been having an affair with the monosyllabic Evelyn (Kara Tointon,) wife of jittery John (David Armand.) And with Marge (Elizabeth Berrington) fretting over her accident-prone husband who keeps phoning her from his sick-bed, Colin might be the one in least need of cheering up.

The comedy isn't uproarious but it's sharp and the cast work well together to show us this disparate group of clearly-defined characters who've ended up in each others' lives largely by default (though why the stone-cold Evelyn ever ended up married to loser John is a mystery.) Among the strong ensemble Parkinson is good as the smiling hostess permanently on the verge of hysteria, Armand often quietly steals the scene as his character, with his phobia of talking about death (an unfortunate condition given why they're there,) starts to get the shakes, while Berrington's Marge constantly putting her foot in it is also funny. Having been outside of the group for a while Colin's proclamations about his friends' personalities are comically wide of the mark while containing the odd accidental grain of truth. The rather bleak conclusion has to be that Colin's the happiest in his relationship, as his fiancée died before things could sour between them and he remembers her as perfect. Ayckbourn's wry observations remain apt and as that clocks ticks off the minutes in real time Jeremy Herrin's production captures the uncomfortable comedy.

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 14th of April at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Theatre review: Hay Fever

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of a late preview - the penultimate one, I think.

Although unfortunately this felt more like the first or second preview than a show that's been in front of an audience for a week or so. The first Noël Coward play to be staged at this theatre since it was renamed in his honour, Hay Fever is a comedy of social awkwardness that's all about the carefully contrived artifice Coward is known for. The Blisses are an ostentatiously bohemian family, and this weekend they've got a full house: Each has invited a guest to stay without warning the others. Writer David Bliss (Kevin R McNally) has brought flapper Jackie (Amy Morton,) "retired" actress Judith (Lindsay Duncan) has invited Sandy (Sam Callis,) and their children Sorel and Simon (Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox) are putting up the older man and woman they have respective crushes on (Jeremy Northam and Olivia Colman.) But as the family start to trade partners over the course of the weekend, their guests aren't prepared for how much of the Blisses' lives are a performance.

There's an encouraging start as Bunny Christie's set is revealed, an airy country mansion in a state of disrepair, and the siblings' early bickering promises a witty, bitchy evening, but the more people who arrive on stage, the more sluggish the production gets. I'd been really looking forward to this largely for the sake of the female stars - Colman, Duncan and Waller-Bridge are all favourites of mine and they all give good performances. So do all the cast really but they never seem as if they've gelled as an ensemble. It's really only Fox and Waller-Bridge's relationship that I believed in. The second act is an improvement as the frantic parlour game that opens it creates some of the missing energy but it's always at risk of fading whenever the action slows down a bit. The final act is the shortest but also the messiest: A sudden lurch into slapstick is out of sorts with the rest of the play, and director Howard Davies hasn't pulled all its strands together - it's only at the end that the shape of this act becomes clear.

The clipped, exaggerated accents one associates with Coward were ditched in favour of something more naturalistic here and Jan thought this was the cause of the dialogue failing to spark. I'm not entirely in agreement as I fear the kind of cobwebby production we got for Blithe Spirit last year. But we did agree that there was certainly a major pacing issue - Jan described it as less Hay Fever, more Hay Slight Temperature. But I think he was just being clever to get name-checked in this review. I can't say any of the cast actually disappointed me, but the combination of them all just didn't work as well as I'd hoped.

Hay Fever by Noël Coward is booking until the 2nd of June at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Theatre review: The Shallow End

The programme notes for Doug Lucie's The Shallow End suggest that on its first appearance in 1997 the play was dismissed because it was ahead of its time. If this is true then it's rather unfortunate that a mere 15 years has taken it from prophetic to dated, although I suspect there were other factors behind any less than enthusiastic reception. Lucie's play is concerned with a fictional, formerly highbrow Sunday broadsheet, taken over 6 months previously by an international media empire. Obviously this could signify anyone. In a huge country mansion Rupert Murdoch is hosting his daughter's wedding, and many senior employees of the Sunday Times are there. But the new editor (Mario Demetriou) is treating the celebration as more of a cull, and the paper's old guard are brought into a symbolic hunting trophy room, to be given the choice between humiliating demotions, or "resignation." Two of the four scenes show these confrontations, the other two show us the old and new guards dealing with each other elsewhere in the house.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Theatre review: Sex With A Stranger

Big Favourite Round These Parts, Russell Tovey returns to the stage for the first time in three years in Sex With A Stranger, written for him by his Him & Her screenwriter Stefan Golaszewski. In fact it's probably fair to say Russell Tovey is the dictionary definition of a Big Favourite Round These Parts so if you were expecting a particularly insightful review you may want to lower those expectations now, and just settle for an endless stream of Too Much Information. Frankly, any section of this review that doesn't just consist of the word "nipples" should be treated as a bonus. We were front row centre in Trafalgar Studio 2 so this was basically porn to me, and that's just the bits where he kept his kit on.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Theatre review: Singin' in the Rain

A watery mini-theme at the theatre this week, although unlike last night there wasn't much fear of getting splashed in the second row of the Palace's balcony. (Though not marked as such on the ticket, these £25 seats certainly conform to the title of my blog. There's a lot of safety rail to look through, and in this case the busy bobbing heads of the people in front of us to negotiate around. You can't really see the steps at the front of the stage, but the production doesn't use them too much. If you don't mind having to lean forward and look through the gaps in the railings, you can see almost everything. The balcony's most disconcerting element is its proximity to the Independence Day flying saucer that makes up the ceiling and looks poised to attack.)

A previous adaptation of Singin' in the Rain at the Palladium was the first thing my sister saw on stage, and I'm told she demanded to be taken again straight away. So for an early birthday present Jonathan Church's Chichester production from last year, now arrived in London, seemed a good choice. I just hope the new leading man, Adam Cooper, is nicer to the backstage crew than his 1980s predecessor Tommy Steele, and they don't (allegedly) piss in his water tank before the big number.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Dance review: At Swim Two Boys

At Swim Two Boys is closer to dance than it is to "movement theatre," which puts it a bit out of my comfort zone, reviewing-wise. I have read Jamie O'Neill's original novel, but far too long ago to remember much about it, and storytelling isn't the primary concern here. O'Neill has collaborated with dance company Earthfall (director/choreographers Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis) to create a show focused on the love affair between the titular young boys (Daniel Connor and Murilo Leite D'Imperio.) Although the setting is nominally the Irish Sea, Gerard Tyler's set has more of an industrial vibe: Water dribbles throughout the show, down metal sheeting at the back, pooling onto the stage on which the boys splash around their doomed love affair. There's a warning that the front row will get wet, although wettest would probably be more accurate - I got splashed enough in the second row, and could see water arcing way over my head to those behind as well. And once the dancers put kilts on you might as well resign yourself to a shower; a dancer spinning in a soaking wet kilt is basically the same thing as turning the sprinklers on.

Perceptive people, or indeed just people, might guess that purely artistic reasons weren't the only thing behind me booking for this show. And it is indeed a very sexy hour of dance, which ends up being probably its biggest strength. The two dancers have a believable chemistry and fearless physicality in what looks like a treacherous show. It's left to the projections (by Steve Vearncombe, Jim Ennis and Gerald Tyler) and the occasional voiceover (by O'Neill and Ennis) to give an idea of the historical context, while the music (by Roger Mills, Frank Naughton, Sion Orgon and Felix Otaola) mixes traditional-sounding Irish music (there's a lot of accordion) with electric guitar to give a feel of the setting. As for the religious conflicts that colour Irish history, by the time the dancers are down to their clingy bathing suits you can see what religion they aren't, does that count? So it's a show that feels only vaguely connected to its original story, but has a nice mix of the high-powered and the more subdued to keep it visually and emotionally interesting, and remains intensely sexy throughout.

At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill and Earthfall is booking until the 25th of February at Riverside Studio 3; then continuing on tour to Plymouth, Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Worcester, Salford, Caernarfon, Lincoln, Southampton and Newport.

Running time: 1 hour straight through.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Theatre review: The House of Bernarda Alba

I do like to pick something spectacularly unromantic for my Valentine's Day viewing. I'm not sure anything can beat The Shape of Things last year, but The House of Bernarda Alba, the classic of violently repressed sexuality, fits the bill well enough. Bijan Sheibani has moved the action of Lorca's play to a remote part of Iran, possibly in the present day - in any case we see the maid vacuuming early on, so we know it can't be too far in the past. I know no more about Muslim mourning rituals than I do about the original's Catholic ones, but for me at least this contemporary setting worked well enough, and makes the play a reminder that oppression of women isn't exclusively a thing of the past. Bernarda Alba (most of the other characters have had their names changed to something more suitably Iranian but the matriarch's stays the same) has just buried her second husband, and commands her household of five daughters to observe 8 years of mourning which will see them imprisoned in their own home. The only hope of escape is a suitable marriage (and wealthy landowner Bernarda's definition of "suitable" is cripplingly narrow in their small, mostly-poor village.) Oldest daughter by her first husband, Asieh (Pandora Colin) has her own fortune, which has caught the eye of an eligible young local. But everyone except the matriarch can see his real interest is in youngest, prettiest daughter Adela (Hara Yannas.) The hunchbacked Elmira (Amanda Hale) is also hopelessly in love with him, and if she can't have him she'll try and make sure nobody does.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Theatre review: The Devil and Mister Punch

This year a grotesque and disturbing British icon celebrates a major milestone. But enough about the Queen, and on to Mister Punch whose first recorded performance was 350 years ago in Covent Garden. Improbable celebrate the anniversary with The Devil and Mister Punch, in which the anarchic, destructive ethos of Punch & Judy spills out beyong the puppet show. One thing I didn't know was that Punch enjoyed a period of great popularity in America in the 19th century (so Americans liked to watch performances by a well-known wife-beater long before Chris Brown came along.) This is the period the show takes inspiration from, with the puppets based on the designs of New York showman Gus White; and instead of a lone "professor" we have a pair of vaudevillians, Harvey & Hovey. A cast of six perform the play which does incorporate much of the traditional Punch & Judy story, but spills out to the flesh-and-blood actors as well.

So alongside the crocodile, dog, hangman etc, we see the story of a bull in love with the matador, in one of the more bizarre sequences, while all along Harvey in particular seems to be having his own breakdown, the puppet-master becoming the puppet. Alternately funny, melancholy, macabre and grotesque (the hanging of Jack Ketch comes complete with a neck-snap sound effect that made the audience gasp,) I think this is the kind of show whose ideas and metaphors you could discuss for days, never shaking the suspicion that ultimately it doen't actually mean much at all.

Jan compared the show to a series of very slowed-down Spike Milligan Q sketches, and the sometimes leisurely pace was probably my biggest problem with it; the show is surreal enough without dragging bits out, and the instances of cheesy music-hall gags seem to miss the point if they're not done snappily. The work done with the puppets and endlessly clever set (by Julian Crouch, Rob Thirtle and Mike Kerns) is inventive and shows a real fascination with the subject (the Hieronymus Bosch Hell of discarded puppets is a great image; as well as probably giving a pretty accurate idea of what Ian's personal Hell would look like) but overall the show didn't quite click with me.

The Devil and Mister Punch by Julian Crouch, Rob Thirtle, Nick Haverson, John Foti, Saskia Lane, Jessica Scott and Seamus Maynard is booking until the 25th of February at The Pit.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Theatre review: Bloody Poetry

Howard Brenton wrote Bloody Poetry in 1984 as a reaction to Thatcher's government and what he saw as the "shredding" of England's radical tradition. So his play, revived here by Tom Littler at Jermyn Street Theatre, goes back to the Romantic Poets to remind us of the revolutionary, partner-swapping atheists behind one of the country's most influential literary movements. The focus of the story is on Percy Bysshe Shellley (Joe Bannister) and his "menagerie." As the play begins it's 1816 and he's accompanied to Lake Geneva by Mary (Rhiannon Summers,) already being referred to as his wife, even though his first wife Harriet is still alive; and Mary's stepsister Claire (Joanna Christie - I totally didn't twig she was the girl from Equus, I think I was distracted by how much she looks and sounds like Sarah Hadland.) Though this isn't just a love triangle, complicated as it is by Lord Byron who knocks Claire up, as well as occasionally trying his luck to see if Bysshe might consider giving boys a go. Bysshe is like a sulky, emo adolescent, in contrast to David Sturzaker's bombastic rock star Byron - when we first meet them, the other three are very much like stalkery fans, going to the hotel they know Byron likes in the hope he'll turn up and befriend them.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Theatre review: Outward Bound

Outward Bound sees the Finborough's stage configured, by designer Alex Marker, into a similar in-the-round setup as last year's Accolade, with several audience members effectively on the stage. Though why this made some of these audience members feel free to leave their drinks on the set and even, on more than one occasion, move some of the on-set chairs around, I don't know. (Actually that's not true, the occasional loud cackles and strong smell of red wine gave me a pretty strong clue as to why.) Still, it wasn't bad enough to spoil the performance. The Finborough's latest "rediscoveries" season opens with another play, like 2010's Quality Street, that was a massive West End and Broadway hit in its day and spawned multiple film adaptations, but at some point fell out of favour and into obscurity: This is the first London revival of Sutton Vane's 1923 play in half a century. (The playwright's real name was Vane Sutton-Vane, which means a nice tie-in to this week's double-barrelled theme. It also means he's so Vane, he probably thinks this song is about him.) There are some pretty obvious reasons why Outward Bound's marketability has faded, but they don't mean the production's not enjoyable on its own terms.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Theatre review: The Changeling (Young Vic)

It's apparently double-barrelled name week at the theatre for me: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett on Monday, Harry Hadden-Paton last night and a triple dose tonight with Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and director Joe Hill-Gibbins - even the anti-heroine of Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling is called Beatrice-Joanna. Contracted by her father (Howard Ward) to marry Alonzo (Duncan Wisbey,) Beatrice-Joanna (Jessica Raine) has her eye on Alsemero (Holdbrook-Smith) instead. Her solution is to charm detested servant De Flores (Daniel Cerqueira) into murdering Alonzo, but she hasn't counted on De Flores being obsessed with her, and demanding a reward she's not prepared to give willingly. Designer Ultz has created an industrial in-the-round set with seating on both levels of the Young Vic's Maria; I initially went in downstairs, but got the feeling parts of the set would block some of the action so went upstairs. From there, looking down on the action from behind netting, the feeling is of being at some kind of secret fight to the death.

The chaotic set is a reflection of Hill-Gibbins' production, which goes for a sense of surreal hysteria. Somewhat tenuously connected to the main plot is a subplot set in a lunatic asylum, where Lloyd-Hughes' Antonio pretends to be a patient so as to get to the asylum-keeper's wife (Charlotte Lucas.) If not so much the story, it's the tone of insanity about the subplot that ties in to the rest of the production, and James Farncombe's lighting is used to good effect in differentiating the play's various worlds.

Jacobethan tragedy can be so OTT as to be funny, and in marked contrast to the recent Southwark Playhouse production (frankly, far from the only way in which this production has the edge) the director has embraced its extremes. Jelly, punch and trifle feature both in the violence, and in the sex during the bed trick that gives the play its title. Although if the chocolate sauce was meant to signify what I thought it was, someone ought to see a doctor. The production's full of ideas, which is good, even if they don't always work - it takes quite a while for the story to take shape, and one very clever visual device is used a couple of scenes after it could have provided a helpful shorthand to what had happened offstage. It's a well-acted production though, and one whose energy and tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject matter makes it memorable.

The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley is booking until the 25th of February at the Young Vic's Maria (returns only according to the website, although tonight I could see about a dozen empty seats.)

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Theatre review: She Stoops to Conquer

Jamie Lloyd's first production at the National isn't quite the high-speed ride you usually expect from him, coming in at just under three hours. But none of the time is wasted in She Stoops to Conquer, which is packed with incident and detail. Goldsmith's comedy has, on the surface of things, too many madcap plots swirling around - a prospective bridegroom mistaking his future in-laws' house for an inn and getting a bit too comfortable there, his friend trying to steal away their niece, a son from an earlier marriage causing no end of mischief, and a plot (by their rightful owner) to steal a box of jewels. That's without the romantic lead acting like a completely different person depending on whether he's talking to his future fiancée, or the sultry barmaid he's fallen for (who, unbeknownst to him, actually is that fiancée.) But Lloyd marshals the perfect cast around the Olivier stage in one of the funniest shows I've seen in ages.

Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan as Marlow and Hastings, the pair of friends arrived from London, have a foppish chemistry, and each also works well with his leading lady: The oblivious Marlow is led a merry dance by Katherine Kelly's Kate Hardcastle, while The Heff shares lots of amusing glances and desperate gestures with Cush Jumbo as his illicit lover Constance. Steve Pemberton's Hardcastle is suitably flustered and David Fynn's Tony Lumpkin the play's lord of misrule. But while everyone is on top comic form, Sophie Thompson steals the show as Mrs Hardcastle. Her failed attempt at a posh accent to impress her city guests has no right to be as funny as it is but I was crying with laughter. The cheap front-of-stalls seats were particularly good value for a show so full of detail and apparent spontaneity.

Christopher had studied, and hated, the play at school but was willing to give it a go - often the least funny plays on the page are the funniest on the stage - and he was converted as well. I told him I didn't know what I'd write in this review as I'm so used to nitpicking but couldn't find anything to criticise here. I could say it takes a while to warm up but the decision to show up the exposition-heavy opening means I was on-side from the off. The play still works as a satire of snobbery - all the problems are the result of arbitrary class distinctions - as well as just being a joyous event. The National have had a good few months for hit comedies, for my money this is the pick of the bunch.

She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith is booking in repertory until the 21st of April at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Theatre review: Shallow Slumber

Taking its cue from a notorious case from a few years back, which saw the media clamouring for social workers to blame and sack, Shallow Slumber by playwright and social worker Chris Lee tries to give an insight into the much-maligned profession. Director Mary Nighy has the action staged in traverse, a sensible choice for a series of often confrontational scenes between two women. Playing out in reverse, we see Dawn (Amy Cudden) unexpectedly arrive at Moira's (Alexandra Gilbreath) house. Moira used to be her social worker several years ago, but a terrible event ended their relationship, and resulted in Moira's sacking. Even though she's asking for help Dawn's attitude is defensive, and as we go back we see this has never changed much, right back to when she was a former crack addict whose new baby Social Services were monitoring. Nighy keeps the action very understated which helps produce an intense, powerful effect, and the two performers are just excellent.

My sister's flatmate Amy is a social worker and saw tonight's performance. She liked the show but did say that Moira said a lot of things a real social worker would never say, such as listing her qualifications to her client. I don't mind things like that, after all you need to get certain information out to an audience, not all of whom are going to have a background in the subject. Dawn's dialogue was more problematic to me - I asked Amy if she'd ever dealt with such an erudite crack whore. Given the naturalistic tone of the piece, her language is just too eloquent to feel real; I kept expecting the twist where she'd first got hooked on crack at Roedean. Cudden's accent and performance are the only things differentiating her speech from the more middle class Moira, Lee's contribution is mainly the occasional "fuck" and "cunt" to make her sound a bit council. I found this distracting, but not enough to spoil a powerful and disturbing play.

I didn't ask Amy how she felt about the script referencing two characters with her name, BOTH OF THEM DEAD, but I'm going to assume she was basically thrilled about it.

Shallow Slumber by Chris Lee is booking until the 18th of February at Soho Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes¹ straight through.

¹I'm including the ten minutes' delay starting in the total running time, because I know if I'm checking it in advance I'm probably trying to time my journey home, so how long it would run if it started on time isn't particularly useful. So if you check on here I'll give you how long you're actually likely to be in the theatre, especially with persistent offenders like Soho, who tend to treat GMT as more of a suggestion.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Theatre review: The Pitchfork Disney

"This is going to be one of those we disagree about, isn't it?" was the first thing I said to Richard as we got up after The Pitchfork Disney. And it most definitely was. I knew a lot of people had really disliked the 21st anniversary production of Philip Ridley's breakthrough hit, while a minority had liked it. I found myself in that minority though. Bob Bailey's raised stage in the middle of the Arcola's Studio 1 reflects the imaginary world the Stray twins find comfort in: A dark tower rising out of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where Haley (Mariah Gale) and Presley (Chris New) are the sole survivors. Aged roughly 28 (they're not sure how much time has passed since they last made a note of it) they remain infantilised, subsisting on chocolate and gruesome fairytales. Presley is marginally more in touch with reality, to the point of being able to leave the flat; his sister is prone to panic attacks he has to ease with a combination of retelling their apocalyptic fantasy, and a noxious drug left behind by their parents, administered via a dummy. As Haley sleeps, Presley spots a handsome man on the street who seems to be in pain, and invites him in. He's Cosmo Disney (Misfits' Nathan Stewart-Jarrett,) an "entertainer" in a sequinned red jacket, who makes his living eating live cockroaches for an audience.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Theatre review: Happy New

Apparently the weather's currently so cold that EVEN that Old Red Lion's claustrophobic space isn't turning into a furnace, and I needed to keep my coat on for the second act. Although this Sunday matinee wasn't that well-attended so maybe it was the lack of body heat that made the difference. A shame as, although I can see that Happy New won't be to everyone's taste, there's plenty about Brendan Cowell's play that deserves an audience. As children, Danny and Lyle were abandoned by their mother in a chicken coop, and not found until a couple of months later, on the brink of starvation. We meet them several years later, now sharing a small flat. Lyle (Joel Samuels) is still obviously psychologically damaged while Danny (Alfred Enoch) appears on the surface at least to be calm and well-adjusted, even having a relationship with Pru (Josie Taylor,) the TV journalist who first reported on their story. Enoch has had a lower profile than some of the other Harry Potter alumni (he played Dean Thomas in the films) which turns out to be because he's been studying at Oxford. Judging from his performance here we'll probably see more of him now he's graduated. Then again, just judging by his shirtless scenes I suspect he'll find an interested audience.

I haven't seen a vast amount of Australian theatre but it does seem to produce some rather odd plays, which as the plot summary probably suggests, is also often the case with this one. The brothers talk a lot about moving on and getting jobs in the outside world, but in reality they're barely able to leave their flat, and in times of stress prefer to think of themselves as chickens. Where I was less able to get to grips with the play was in the changes in tone; at times the production has an absurdist, surreal tone (not entirely down to director Robert Shaw, as the play's dialogue sometimes takes on a Beckettian feel - no prizes for guessing those were my least favourite parts) yet the majority of the play is pretty naturalistic, which is where the strongest performances come. Taylor suffers the most from these stylistic jumps as her first appearance is for a particularly over the top monologue, so it takes a bit of work in subsequent scenes for her to make you realise she does in fact have an idea of what a human behaves like, and was just going big for the demands of that particular scene. For me, the basic story is unusual enough that we didn't need these jumps into a more heightened style to bring it home. Happy New is at its strongest and most disturbing when calmly looking at this particularly twisted version of a codependent relationship, and the production features some excellent performances, especially from Samuels: Acting a nervous breakdown without the audience getting the giggles is rare enough, let alone when said breakdown involves clucking.

Happy New by Brendan Cowell is booking until the 25th of February at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.
Appropriately, the production's sponsored by Nando's.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (RSC / RST & tour)

The last time the RSC tried their hand at a bit of shrew-taming, they went for a literal approach that didn't sugarcoat the misogyny in Shakespeare's play. Which is all very powerful and thought-provoking, but unless you're an actual misogynist it's also rather unpleasant. Lucy Bailey's The Taming of the Shrew is a much less brutal, more ambiguous telling of the story that tries to find the soulmates in Petruchio and Katherina, but remains problematic.

Proving once again that the deep thrust stage doesn't mean you can't have interesting sets, Ruth Sutcliffe turns the whole diving board into a giant bed. Bailey has not only included the induction scene but embraced it, and it's Christopher Sly, under the misapprehension that he's a lord, who's tucked up under the covers watching the play-within-a-play. Casting Nick Holder, an actor who's never been afraid to make himself look grotesque, as Sly, sets the tone for a scatological production, and Holder frequently pops up to steal the show in literally shameless fashion. Despite the 1940s Italian setting, Lisa Dillon's Katherina is entirely a modern-day ladette, constantly drunk, chain-smoking, spitting, vomiting and pissing on the stage. So her Petruchio matches her, his inappropriate wedding attire here consisting of him turning up topless and covered in marker pen, as if fresh from the stag do. Although, since he's played by David Caves, the production like the poster image is basically a series of excuses to get him to take his shirt off anyway.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Theatre review: After the Turn

After the Turn reunites Steven Webb and Ashleigh Gray, and unlike their last show together, Gray gets to have a body below the neck this time,which must be nice for her. It's probably also a nice change for Webb to be out of school uniform and play someone his own age, as 20-something Will, who's found himself the legal guardian of his teenage nephew after his sister's death. Michael (Liam Doyle) has gone mute since his mother died (but his hearing and sight seem fine; no word on what his pinball abilities are like.) Stephen Rolley voices and sings Michael's thoughts, as well as playing him in flashbacks to when he was younger and more Welsh, opposite Gray as his DeadMum. In a last-ditch effort to get Michael talking again, Will enlists ex-girlfriend Lauren (Tori Allen-Martin.) She's now living with his former band-mate Wolf (Greg Oliver, whose singing is better than his acting,) now working for a record company and hoping to sign Michael to his label.

The publicity for After the Turn suggests it's primarily a showcase for the music of composer Tim Prottey-Jones, and on this front it's utterly successful. There's barely a weak number, Prottey-Jones' style is a pop-rock that's spot-on for musical theatre, and I can easily see him supplying tunes to a large-scale production. The framework to the songs is a lot more rough and ready (I follow Webb on Twitter¹ so know their rehearsal time was virtually non-existent.) The story is a mish-mash of familiar ideas, the book by Robert Gould and director Sarah Henley is several drafts away from ready, and the whole show's at least 20 minutes too long. I won't go into the plot holes, although exactly what Wolf does at the record company seems to vary from scene to scene. Whatever it is he can't be much good at it, since he apparently needs to sign a new act, and is concentrating his efforts entirely on someone who doesn't even talk, let alone sing. I think because he does coke and has an appalling haircut, the record label figured they should probably give him a job.

But overall there's a lot to enjoy here, if you don't worry about the story too much you're left with an attractive cast, putting a lot of energy and enthusiasm into good songs. Webb, Gray, Doyle and Oliver can all sell a tune; Allen-Martin is wobbly at times, and Rolley has a couple of songs pitched too high for his voice, but the ones in the right key he can belt out like a good'un. LOOK AT ME USING WORDS AS IF I KNOW WHAT THEY MEAN! "Pitched." "Key." Smoke and mirrors, honestly. Anyway After the Turn is far from the finished article but the things it does do well it has got just right.

After the Turn by Tim Prottey-Jones, Robert Gould, Tori Allen-Martin, Angela Prottey-Jones and Sarah Henley is booking until the 25th of February at the Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

¹slightly surreally, he replied to my tweet about the show during the interval. I'd tweeted about the unfortunately-placed hole in his jeans. Because I'm all about the things that really matter. He was also retweeting reviews of the show at the time - reading reviews during the interval? SURELY THAT WAY MADNESS LIES!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Theatre review: The Bee

If you've been reading my reviews since they were on the other blog, you'll know I'm a fan of Kathryn Hunter. Last year I introduced Andy to the revival of Kafka's Monkey, and that made him keen to catch her future work as well. Hunter often seems happy to to revisit earlier work and so it is with Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan's The Bee, which she first appeared in in 2006, and which is now on an international tour. She plays Mr Ido, a Tokyo salaryman who one day in 1974 returns home from work to find police and reporters surrounding his house - an escaped murderer has taken his wife and son hostage. Ido's response is to take the kindapper's own wife and child hostage. This stalemate is the heart of the play.

Glyn Pritchard, Clive Mendus and Hideki Noda play all the other characters in this pitch-black comedy that uses both physicality and creative use of props to tell its story - amusing uses are found for rubber bands, and you know the actors are doing something right when snapping a pencil causes audience members to flinch. Hunter is well matched by the other performers - Noda as the kidnapper's wife is particularly haunting as the character gradually succumbs to shock, and his face goes eerily blank. With a lot of fun humour early on (as far as I can tell the 1970s setting is largely so we get a couple of gags about people being inordinately impressed by calculators and cars with electric windows) it's not just the setting that's Japanese but the particular brand of oddity, Miriam Buether's set adding to the cartoon feel. This sense of the surreal is still in evidence as the subject matter gets increasingly bleaker.

Thematically the show covers a lot of ground, from the media, to the central theme of extreme circumstances pushing a seemingly normal man into horrific actions, and later the play takes in a bit of twisted satire on domestic routine - Andy also interpreted parts of it as commentary on tit-for-tat retaliations in warfare. This scattergun approach to its targets may be one reason I found myself at more of an emotional distance than I expected; the cleverness of the performances is probably something else that you admire rather than being hooked in by. Though I suspect the only reason I noticed this is because previous shows starring Kathryn Hunter have always tugged at the heartstrings with seeming ease, so I noticed the contrast. This is more of an intellectually stimulating show, and while it's star's physical skills and easy empathy are in evidence, her ability to turn from comedy to tragedy and back is the acting muscle getting most exercise here.

The Bee by Hideki Noda and Colin Teevan is booking until the 11th of February at Soho Theatre; then continuing on tour to Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Theatre review: Ghost

Every year I like to take advantage of at least one show on the discounted ticket promotion Get Into London Theatre. This year was rather slim pickings for me, with shows I either didn't fancy or had already seen, so I settled on one of last year's big new musicals which I'd skipped at the time. Ghost has just had a cast change, its original leads having gone to the upcoming Broadway transfer, so the very buff Mark Evans plays Sam Wheat (so named because he's well-bred. No? Please yourself) and Siobhan Dillon his girlfriend Molly, while Sharon D Clarke returns to play phoney psychic Oda Mae Brown after taking a break from the role. With its huge fanbase, the movie Ghost seems like a pretty obvious commercial choice to give the big-budget musical treatment. Though the fact that Matthew Warchus' production wears its budget on its sleeve is no surprise, given the fact that the romance is surely the draw for most of the aforementioned fanbase I didn't expect the show to be quite so in-your-face. Its personality is more that of the brash Oda-Mae than its pottery-fetishising central couple, and accordingly Clarke gets many of the biggest moments, and the biggest cheers.