Friday, 30 March 2012

Theatre review: The American Clock

In recent years a number of theatres have commissioned new plays looking at the current financial crisis, its causes and historical precedents. True to form, Neil McPherson at the Finborough has instead done some digging to find a theatrical great who'd already written such a play, only for it to fall into obscurity. Arthur Miller's The American Clock was nominated for an Olivier in 1986 but hasn't been seen in London since. Arthur A. Robertson (Patrick Poletti) was a wealthy businessman who predicted the Great Depression, put all his money into gold and managed to hold onto his wealth as a consequence, able to observe the chaos the USA fell into in the 1930s. Robertson acts as narrator, as Miller uses Studs Terkel's book of interviews Hard Times as inspiration to tell the stories of dozens of people who faced financial ruin.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Theatre review: Filumena

Once a prostitute, Filumena was taken from the brothel by Domenico and put up in a little flat as his mistress. But even after his wife died, he still only kept her there, refusing to marry her and carrying on with other women. Now in her forties, Filumena is on her deathbed and convinces Domenico to marry her - at which point she makes a "miraculous" recovery, just in time to stop him marrying his new girlfriend. Set in the bright, sunny courtyard of the wealthy Domenico's house in 1940s Naples, Filumena is largely concerned with the other big secret the title character has been keeping: Her three grown-up sons by different fathers (one of whom is Domenico) who live in town with no idea of who their real mother is. Robert Jones' set effectively evokes the warm, sunny mood of Eduardo De Filippo's play, but despite a great cast led by the always-watchable Samantha Spiro, Michael Attenborough's production at the Almeida fails to come to life.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Theatre review: Our Country's Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker's versions of Greek tragedy are among my favourites (I think she strikes a good balance between being true to the genre and clear, unpretentious writing) but I hadn't seen any of her own original work. Now her best-known play, Our Country's Good, gets a touring production and it's well-timed as well, since it coincides with the Donmar's revival of The Recruiting Officer, a play that features heavily in this one. Captain Arthur Phillip (Aden Gillet) is governor of the newly-established Sydney, New South Wales. He presides over the soldiers guarding prisoners who've been transported to Australia for crimes big or small back in England. After a traumatic 8-month sea voyage, the convicts are desperate and their lives chaotic, the soldiers take out their own frustrations on them, and Phillip wishes they could start anew without the brutal whippings and hangings that are a daily feature. When he suggests putting on a play might have a civilising effect, 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark thinks volunteering to direct it might help his chances of promotion, and The Recruiting Officer is chosen.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Theatre review: Abigail's Party

Set designers must love plays from the 1970s, as they always dive in with gusto to throw as much orange-and-brown tat as possible onto the stage. Living rooms of the period were, in my memory, crammed full of bizarre knick-knacks, but is that accurate or just the fact that when we see living rooms decorated for the period, every cliché of the decade appears in them because that's funnier? Mike Britton is the designer in the 70s toybox this time, and if there's a lot of stuff in the front room of Laurence and Beverley, much of it is in fact right there in Mike Leigh's script in the suburban passive-aggressive classic, Abigail's Party. Following huge success with Noises Off, Lindsay Posner now directs a darker, more acidic comedy, but with similarly strong results.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Theatre review: The Master and Margarita

I was a rare voice of dissent among the praise for Complicite's A Disappearing Number, so wasn't sure if I fancied the company's latest venture, The Master and Margarita. But with the excellent Sinéad Matthews in one of the title roles, and Big Favourite Round These Parts Henry Pettigrew in the ensemble, I decided to give it a chance. Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical novel about the Devil visiting Soviet-era Moscow is apparently famously impenetrable (I haven't read it myself) and so it is with Simon McBurney's stage adaptation. Its Möbius plot encompasses two writers, both inspired to write identical stories that are essentially the Gospel According to Pontius Pilate, only for both to have them rejected by the authorities for their suggestion that Jesus/Yeshua actually existed. There's also a demonic variety show, a ball attended by history's most notorious killers, and the titular doomed affair.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Theatre review: The Summer House

If you're going to do a piece about a crisis of masculinity, a stag do seems to be the traditional story to tell. So it is in The Summer House, devised by its performers Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh and Matthew Steer, and director John Wright. On a stag weekend in Iceland, groom Will and best man Matthew get separated from the rest of the group when Neil, who lives locally, drives them to his holiday home in the middle of nowhere. Once there, they get wrapped up in the untamed nature surrounding it, and the idea of taming nature. But as things start to go wrong not only does nature seem sure to defeat them, but so do the tensions in Will and Matt's relationship.

Billed as a "comedy thriller," The Summer House has the odd moment of tension but mostly goes for the first part of that description, with lots of mainly silly, occasionally violent humour. (Plus an unimpressed reaction to the Northern Lights that was probably my favourite gag.) The main story is intermittently broken up by two other narratives: A piece of Norse mythology featuring Odin (whose all-seeing raven is a great lo-fi visual gag,) Loki and a very windswept Thor; plus the story of a group of butch-to-the-point-of-insanity Vikings, facing death rather more eagerly than most. Both subplots are fun and on-theme to the rest of the play if not particularly integrated into the main narrative. But the performers are very energetic and likeable, whichever trio of characters they're playing.

Michael Vale's undecorated multi-level set looks like it's been thrown together but conceals a couple of surprises, in the spirit of a piece which betrays its devised roots with lots of inventive touches, and props that have to multitask as much as the actors. Its unpolished nature is part of The Summer House's aesthetic, and part of its charm. It's a funny and warm show, and not just because of the hot tub the actors pretend to be in much of the time (the Gate has a fondness for slightly sarcastic pre-show warnings; this time, in addition to alerting the audience that there's "haze" and swearing, the sign at the box office also warns that the play "contains men in bathing costumes.")

The Summer House by Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh, Matthew Steer and John Wright is booking until the 24th of March at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Theatre review: After Miss Julie

If TV period dramas have taught us one thing, it's that 1930s and '40s chauffeurs' primary function was to make themselves available for sex at the lady of the house's whim. And so it is in After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie. Marber makes the play's class relations particularly British by setting the play in a country house in 1945, on the night of Labour's election victory, with the working man and woman looking like they're about to get more of a say in the world. (Thanks to the Beautiful People soundtrack, "Things Can Only Get Better" is on my iPod, which chose to play it on my way home; wrong election, but the right idea.) Patrick Burnier's set makes the audience descend a long staircase to the ground level of the Maria, bringing us to the kitchen of a country house. Most of the staff are upstairs celebrating, and the master of the house is in London on business, but his daughter Miss Julie (Natalie Dormer) has stayed behind. Cook Christine (Polly Frame) has skipped the party though and is in the kitchen making a snack for chauffeur John (Kieran Bew) whom she's "unofficially" engaged to; she's also making a foul-smelling concoction intended to make Julie's lapdog miscarry its puppies.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Theatre review: The Leisure Society

A French-Canadian black comedy of marital boredom, The Leisure Society looks at the kind of people who have everything but are still miserable (not to mention the kind of people who live in a mansion with a pool but insist they're "not rich.") Peter (Ed Stoppard) and wife Mary (Melanie Gray) have a year-old son who still cries constantly, and are trying to quit cigarettes and alcohol to help them cope with looking after him. They've invited recently-divorced Alpha-male friend Mark (John Schwab) round to dinner, where they intend to friend-dump him. Mark turns up with much-younger fuck buddy Paula (Agyness Deyn¹) however, and events take a different turn.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Theatre/Dance review: Can We Talk About This?

Spending a couple of weeks at the Lyttelton after a world tour, physical theatre company DV8 go for a deliberately controversial subject matter in Can We Talk About This? The theme is Islamic extremism, and in particular the harsh reprisals faced by numerous people who've publicly criticised or spoken out about Islam over the years. The rough starting point is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses, probably the first time most people in this country became aware of Muslim extremism, Sharia Law and its demands for execution of anyone who speaks out against its teachings. The spoken element mainly consists of a verbatim play spoken by the performers, although there's also recordings of actual speeches, and radio and TV debates (meaning Jeremy Paxman gets to steal the show without having to enter the building.) All of this is combined with the performers' abrupt, jerky dance movements.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Theatre review: The Oresteia

The Oresteia is another play I have a personal connection with, having appeared in a production at University (I was a chorus member in Agamemnon and Orestes in Eumenides.) Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, only to be murdered by his wife in revenge for him sacrificing their daughter to the gods (Agamemnon.) His remaining children Orestes and Electra plot to murder their mother and her lover, and as a result Orestes incurs the wrath of the Furies for matricide (Choephoroi, which covers similar ground to Sophocles' Electra.) Finally, Orestes is put on trial in Athens' newly-minted democracy, and the Furies are forced to give up their claim on his life (Eumenides.) After 17-odd years I'm not sure what I was expecting but what I got was utterly mental: The opening, where the actors stand still and each recites one critical line from the plays (twice) was a clue. When we then go to the Watchman (Joe Robert Buckingham) yelling the opening speech while backstage the rest of the cast bark and growl, it's already clear that the House of Atreus has been turned into The House That Irony Forgot.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Theatre review: Shivered

The second in this year's Philip Ridley-fest (so far, four of his plays are in, or will be coming to, London,) and after a revival of his first play it's the premiere of his latest work, Shivered. Straying for once from the East End, Ridley takes us to an Essex new-town, built largely to accommodate a Japanese car manufacturer, who then upped sticks a couple of years later. Two families form the core of the story: Lyn (Olivia Poulet) and Mikey (Simon Lenagan) whose grown-up son Alec (Robbie Jarvis) is in the Army, and whose younger son Ryan (Joseph Drake) was born with a deformity they blame on the car plant; and morbidly obese single mother Evie (Amanda Daniels,) a phoney psychic whose son Jack (Josh Williams) is regularly, viciously beaten by a gang of local bullies. The families are linked by the friendship between the two 12-year-olds, and by Gordy (Andrew Hawley,) a charismatic fairground worker with a thing for older women.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Theatre review: Snookered

The last show at the Bush to be programmed during the Josie Rourke regime, Snookered is a co-production with Oldham Coliseum and Tamasha, the latter company having discovered playwright Ishy Din at one of their writing workshops. Four old school friends meet every year on the birthday of the fifth, who died of an overdose some years previously. Though well into their twenties, their group dynamic still has something of the playground about it, and while each still has his own issues with the others, they all have plenty of adult concerns in their lives outside as well.

Shaf (Muzz Khan) is the most obviously messed up; a cab driver and married with his fifth child on the way, he's the least financially secure, is prone to anger and has started assuming every white person is a racist. Billy (the preppily handsome Jaz Deol) has moved to London after a family bust-up, and these annual meet-ups are his only visits back North. The awkward Kamy (Asif Khan) was always, and still is the whipping boy, both in the group and at home - having taken over the family business, he's still at the mercy of his retired father's bullying. And Mo (Peter Singh) is doing well at work, but his friends suspect him of having become radicalised.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Theatre review: Don Juan Comes Back From the War

Writing in the 1930s with the Second World War on the horizon, Ödön von Horváth relocated Don Juan to Germany at the end of the First. In Don Juan Comes Back From the War the now middle-aged lothario (Zubin Varla) returns to Berlin in the belief that he can start again where he left off, surrounded by women. But a sudden heart attack proves otherwise and his visit to the hospital is the start of a search for meaning, and perhaps an understanding of where he's been going wrong in thinking he knows anything about love. For all his philandering he had been due to settle down, but left his bride-to-be at the alter before going to war; he now thinks finding her again is the answer.

Ellan Parry is the latest designer to squeeze a raised thrust stage into the Finborough, full of hidden compartments that conceal props, and the clever design helps Andrea Ferran's production give the feel of Don Juan's odyssey through the streets of Berlin. A cast of six play the dozens of women he encounters along the way, and there's a very strong central section when he reunites with a former lover (Rosie Thomson) he's long since forgotten. The production itself, and the performances, are hard to fault, but I've found von Horváth's work hard to click with in the past, and it's the same again here: In the end, the play left me cold.

Don Juan Comes Back From the War by Ödön von Horváth in a version by Duncan Macmillan is booking until the 24th of March at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Theatre review: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of Trinidad's independence, a milestone that probably prompted the National to revive Errol John's 1953 play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, a gently tragicomic look at 48 hours in the life of the island. Soutra Gilmour's set squeezes the road and three small shacks into a traverse in the Cottesloe, and it's their inhabitants that form the core of the play. Ephraim (Danny Sapani) sees getting away as the only route to happiness, and has secretly been planning to leave girlfriend Rosa (Jade Anouka) behind and set sail to Liverpool. The heart of the piece is Sophia (Martina Laird,) trying to look after her family despite her layabout husband Charlie (Jude Akuwudike.) Meanwhile prostitute Mavis (a scene-stealing Jenny Jules, tottering about in her high heels and kissing her teeth at the neighbours who look down on her) makes a living off the American soldiers and sailors (all played by cute Joshua McCord,) the US still keeping an eye on the area because it's got oil.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Theatre review: Going Dark

Sound&Fury were behind Kursk, one of my favourite shows of 2010, so I was excited about the company's return to the Young Vic. Going Dark is another immersive show but there the similarities end as it's a much more thoughtful, small-scale affair. The audience has to go out the front of the building and round the block to the back entrance of The Clare (so don't arrive at the last minute!) where coats and bags are collected before entering the auditorium.

There's nothing metaphorical about the title Going Dark. There's little light to find your seat by and during the show there's often periods of complete darkness. The show sees Sound&Fury both expand their scope to encompass the whole Universe, and at the same time shrink their focus to inside one man's head. Max (John Mackay, formerly of the RSC's EnsembleTM) is an astronomer whose job at a planetarium sees him describing the infinite on a daily basis. He's also the single father of six-year-old Leo. And he's rapidly going blind.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Non-review: Ain't No Law Against Fish 'n' Chips

NOTE: I'm not going to do a proper review as this is a rehearsed reading, not a full production.

Definitely a themed week for me: Third trip to the Royal Court, which for the third time takes us to Essex (Dagenham this time, we're really getting the tour) and even the second rendition of West Ham anthem "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." As part of its Young Writers Festival which has already given us Goodbye To All That and covered the building in "100-word plays" the Court is also presenting a handful of rehearsed readings of other plays submitted to the Festival, each getting two performances, and I decided to try and make it to a couple. Rose Lewenstein's Ain't No Law Against Fish 'n' Chips is directed by Richard Twyman, with a cast of Danny Worters, Tobi Bakare and Amelia Lowdell, and concerns two teenage boys who live on the same estate and have been best friends for years. Soon after his first failed job application Pete (Worters) meets some members of the English Defence League, who convince him the reason he missed out on a job was a stealth Muslim invasion, and Pete immediately begins to join them on marches and espouse the EDL's beliefs. The resurgent far right wing was a popular subject for theatre a couple of years ago. Lewenstein's play is a pretty straightforward affair and serves its purpose of showing off her writing ability, especially her good ear for dialogue. With a number of more complex plays on similar themes having been seen in London relatively recently, I'm not sure there's any real market for it beyond this kind of showcase though.

Ain't No Law Against Fish 'n' Chips by Rose Lewenstein is booking until the 10th of March at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Theatre review: Farewell to the Theatre

Melancholy is the overwhelming tone of Richard Nelson's new play Farewell to the Theatre, set among a group of English ex-pats in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1916. World War I rages but America hasn't joined yet and on a university campus, British experts are popular on the lecture circuit. Widow Dorothy (Jemma Redgrave) runs a guest house, and is in competition with her late husband's mistress over who can mourn him the longest. Her brother Henry (Louis Hilyer) is an English lecturer at the University, and neither of the siblings seem to be popular on campus. Beatrice (Tara Fitzgerald) is a married former actress having an affair with Charles (cute American actor William French in his professional stage debut,) the new president of the student drama society, while Jason Watkins' Frank is the cake-loving Dickens expert. The most recent arrival is Harley Granville-Barker (Ben Chaplin,) the actor, director, playwright and theorist whose ideas challenged theatrical tradition and who argued in favour of a National Theatre decades before it became a reality. Around this time in his life, Granville-Barker became disillusioned with theatre and eventually left it altogether; he also wrote a play called Farewell to the Theatre, from which this play gets its title, presumably in order to cause maximum confusion. It's also a bit misleading as it's not just Granville-Barker's crisis Nelson's play is concerned with.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Theatre review: All New People

All New People is another of the shows that was running (off) Broadway last summer that I didn't manage to see at the time, but which I've had a second chance at with it arriving over here. I'd have been happy enough if its New York star Justin Bartha had come over with it but for my sister and her flatmate, the fact that its writer Zach Braff has also now replaced him in the lead made it a must-see. And I guess Scrubs must be more popular than I realised because the Duke of York's was packed tonight. Though I avoid reading reviews before seeing a show, headlines are harder to miss and so I was aware of the flood of derision All New People received from the "real" critics. Low expectations can be a good thing though and if Braff's comedy-drama is so slight that it doesn't bear the least scrutiny, it's not without its positives.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Theatre review: Goodbye To All That

It's déjà vu time at the Royal Court where I was for the second night in a row: Although this time in the Upstairs theatre, we're still in Essex (Romford this time) and there's another hospital bed on stage. I was also accompanied by Ian for the second night running, because Goodbye To All That is the playwrighting debut of actor Luke Norris, and Ian wanted to know if he's as good at writing as he is at being on stage in just his underpants. This is the opening play in this year's Royal Court Young Writers' Festival but, inspired by the fact that at 25 it was the last year he was young enough to qualify, Norris has written a play concerned with ageing. Frank (Roger Sloman) is nearly 70 and is confronted at the golf club by grandson David (Alexander Cobb) whom he and his wife have raised. David has his A'level results but this isn't the main thing he wants to talk about: He's spotted his grandfather with Rita (Linda Marlowe,) a woman who isn't his grandmother.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Theatre review: In Basildon

You couldn't accuse David Eldridge of shying away from the darker side of life. After last year's children's-TV-presenter-gets-heroin-habit fun and games at the Almeida, he returns to the Royal Court and a reconfigured Downstairs theatre where Len (Phil Cornwell) is on his deathbed with prostate cancer, in his living room In Basildon. The scene is set for a dysfunctional family reunion as Len's sister Doreen (Linda Bassett) has been living in his house for decades, but she's not spoken to younger sister Maureen (Ruth Sheen) for the last 20 years. Though the details are sketchy at first, it's clear money and ownership of the house are at the root of the family feud. Doreen's son Barry (Lee Ross) and Maureen's daughter Shelley (Jade Williams, briefly allowed out of the Globe and not even required to vomit on anyone) try their best not to let the hard feelings carry on to their generation. Once Len is dead, things don't get any easier as it turns out he's recently changed his will, and the new arrangements could leave everyone in very different circumstances than they expected.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Theatre review: Purge

Opening with video footage of a woman being sexually taunted and assaulted by Russian soldiers, Finnish-Estonian Sofi Oksanen's 2007 play Purge, receiving its UK premiere in a translation by Eva Buchwald in the Arcola's smaller studio, clearly has no plans to be an easy watch. The setting is a tiny, remote cabin in the woods in the early '90s, not long after Estonian independece, where elderly Aliide (a wonderfully no-nonsense Illona Linthwaite) lives alone. Her apparent peace is shattered by Zara (Elicia Daly,) a prostitute who's just killed her pimp and run away, pursued by a couple of gangsters (Benjamin Way and Liam Thomas.) Much of the play is taken up with flashbacks as Aliide relives another period when the house saw a lot of upheaval: During the Soviet days, in the late 1940s or early '50s, her sister Ingel and her daughter had been sent to Siberia as "enemies of the state." Aliide was only left behind because she married local communist Martin (Johnny Vivash.) But what nobody knows is that Ingel's husband Hans, believed dead, is in fact being hidden in the cellar.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Theatre review: Floyd Collins

In 1925, after going alone into a particularly deep cave in Kentucky, gold miner Floyd Collins got trapped underground. The rescue attempt became national news, with a media circus camped outside the cave entrance. Southwark Playhouse's Vault is a large, dark, damp railway tunnel that splits into two narrower tunnels, and James Perkins' design is the first I've seen there not to cover this up and instead to utilise the depths ahead. Visually, this show is a great match to the space and offers, for free, the kind of breathtaking set the biggest-budget West End show would envy, easily conjuring up the intimidating underground spaces the story takes place in. But Floyd Collins is a musical, and here we stumble on one of the biggest problems with Derek Bond's production: Since seeing Parade here I've doubted the suitability of staging musicals in a space with such dodgy acoustics and sadly Floyd Collins only confirmed this for me.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Theatre review: Bingo - Scenes of Money and Death

I'm wary, to say the least, of Edward Bond plays ever since Saved triggered a genuine depression attack a few months ago. But tonight's trip to the theatre had been booked for ages, and Vanessa's tendency to fancy older men extends to Patrick Stewart, so I braved Bingo with her. William Shakespeare didn't spend the end of his life writing and performing, but increasing his wealth back in Stratford-upon-Avon through money-lending and land. Taking this, and the fact that his relationship with his family appears to have been poor, as inspiration, Bond imagines the playwright's last days as a very dark, despair-filled time. We start with the Enclosures Act which will evict many of the local poor but which landowner Combe (Matthew Marsh) convinces Shakespeare to turn a blind eye to by promising to make up any loss of earnings from reduced rent. So despite his reservations, Shakespeare fails to support the poor and so has a measure of guilt for the unrest that comes later. His lack of action also has tragic consequences for a girl (Michelle Tate) who comes begging to New Place.

Bingo is subtitled Scenes of Money and Death and this is very much what we get over the next couple of hours, seen through the eyes of a man whom Stewart gives a very recognisable depression which makes him empathise with those in trouble yet unwilling to do anything to help. Meanwhile he's casually unkind to unloved daughter Judith (Catherine Cusack) while the ill Anne Hathaway is never even seen. Fortunately even if it accurately depicts depression, I didn't find myself in any risk of feeling suicidal this time, but it remains a very dark experience. Stewart's surrounded by a strong cast including the wonderful Ellie Haddington as his housekeeper and Alex Price as her angry son, while Richard McCabe's all-too-short appearance as a bombastic Ben Jonson brings some welcome, if dark humour to the piece. I found what ultimate point Bond is trying to make elusive, which makes the relentless misery harder to take. But director Angus Jackson and designer Robert Innes Hopkins undeniably create some gorgeous imagery on the thrust stage, most notably when Shakespeare is given his own version of Lear's most iconic scene: The madness replaced by drunkenness, the rain by snow, it's also the play's best and most moving scene.

Bingo - Scenes of Money and Death by Edward Bond is booking until the 31st of March at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.