Thursday, 31 May 2012

Theatre review: Children's Children

When I'm stuck on how to start a review, a brief overview of the play is the usual standby, but that's not very useful when I have no idea what the play in question is meant to be. Fortunately, during the third act of Matthew Dunster's Children's Children, when the characters all started shouting at each other in a kitchen after a funeral, I figured it out: It's a soap opera. Michael (EnsembleTM alumnus Darrell D'Silva) is a cheesy TV presenter with a hit Saturday night game show. He's known best friend Gordon (Trevor Fox) and Gordon's wife Sally (Sally Rogers) since drama school, but the latter pair have never had much success as actors. Now in middle age, Gordon's situation has got so bad that he has to beg his wealthy friend for money. By the second act, Gordon and Sally have pretty much moved into Michael's summer house in Dorset, not telling him that their daughter Effie (Emily Berrington,) her husband Castro (John MacMillan) and their new baby are also living there. But this time it's Michael who'll be in dire straits and needing his friends' support.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Theatre review: The Irish Giant

Though the weather's been hot lately, the Vault at Southwark Playhouse remains as chilly as ever if you need cooling down. The temperature's eerily appropriate in a story about dead bodies (reminding me of the rumour that these tunnels were used as a makeshift WWII morgue.) The Irish Giant, devised by the company Cartoon de Salvo, is inspired by Georgian anatomist John Hunter (Brian Logan,) a pioneering doctor with a preference for dissecting "abnormal" bodies - dwarves, hunchbacks - and a lack of scruples as to how to get hold of their corpses. When the eight-foot tall Irishman Charles Byrne (Neil Haigh) arrives in London to be exhibited to the public, Hunter becomes obsessed with securing his body post-mortem, and sends his shifty accomplice Harrison (Alex Murdoch, also directing,) to trail the giant in the hope of being there for his expected premature death.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Theatre review: The Beloved

Among the many theatre festivals going on at the moment, World Stages London has proven to be the ginger stepchild: Wild Swans was well-liked, but while I loved Three Kingdoms¹ the feeling was far from universal, and let's not even get started on The Suit. Meanwhile Babel had the dubious annual distinction of being that show that proclaims itself "the theatre event of the year," only for its existence to go almost completely unnoticed. So what's the Bush Theatre's contribution to this season? From Palestinian company ShiberHur, Amir Nizar Zuabi's The Beloved takes its inspiration from the story of Abraham and Isaac. Acknowledging the disturbing act of betrayal at the heart of the story, The Beloved resets it to the middle of a modern-day conflict very familiar to the company, near mountains on an ever-changing border, the day after the fateful event.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Theatre review: The Complaint

It's all a bit bombastic upstairs at Hampstead at the moment, but downstairs things are a whole lot quieter, and a great deal odder. Nick Whitby's The Complaint is set in an unspecified country - there's mostly a Middle-Eastern feel, but each character has a different international accent, sometimes even changing accent depending on who they're talking to. Afra (Zora Bishop) has an appointment in an office of "The Society," to discuss a complaint form she's submitted. The levels of bureaucracy she now encounters from a trio of administrators (Nathalie Armin, Peter Bankole and Callum Dixon) take her on a self-consciously Kafkaesque journey that takes in revolutionary politics, torture and the meaning of Art.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Theatre review: The Devil Inside Him

I was originally meant to be seeing Written on the Heart tonight, but of course that show took an early bath, leaving me with an empty day in my diary. Being a total addict, the prospect of three theatre-free nights in a row was a bit scary, so I settled on the White Bear, a theatre I've not had the best luck with in the past, but I figured was due another chance. John Osborne's playwrighting debut, co-written with Stella Linden¹, was only recently unearthed in the British Library. Although showing signs of being an early work, if Hannah Joss' production is anything to go by it's been worth rediscovering. Set in the world's most oppressive guest house The Devil Inside Him shows us life in a remote Welsh village in the 1950s, where a hellfire-spouting Methodist minister lords it over his flock.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Theatre review: The Suit

In Sophiatown, a township of Johannesburg in the 1950s, a husband (William Nadylam) returns early from work to find his wife (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) in bed with another man. The man flees in his underwear, and as punishment, the husband makes the wife keep the suit he's left behind: It's to stay in their house forever as an honoured "guest," to sit with them at mealtimes and be taken for walks. Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk did a French-language stage version of Can Themba's short story several years ago, and now they've created a new version of The Suit in English. It's a piece of storytelling theatre that failed to engage me in the least, a dreary hodge-podge of styles that stretches a very bare story over 80 minutes in a rather mournful way.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Theatre review: Love's Labour's Lost (Deafinitely Theatre / Globe to Globe)

This week is brought to you by the letter L: After Love, Love, Love on Monday it's now the turn of Love's Labour's Lost. This is my final Globe to Globe trip, and the only one that really counts as Shakespeare in a foreign language, as I speak Greek, and the Othello was only translated into a different dialect of English. The language is British Sign Language, and the show's performed by Deafinitely Theatre, who will be following the Globe stint with a brief tour. I chose a BSL show as something I could take my sister to, as she did a course in it last year. What we didn't know when we booked was that her teacher, Nadia Nadarajah, would actually be playing the Princess of France, who along with her ladies-in-waiting arrives in the Court of Navarre. When the King and his friends fall for the ladies, it seriously challenges their recently-made oaths of celibacy.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Theatre review: Two Roses for Richard III

Not to let the Globe get all the international Shakespeares, the RSC opens the London leg of its contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival with a production from Brazil's Companhia Bufomecânica. Two Roses for Richard III is billed as an adaptation of Shakespeare's History Plays, although it's really just Richard III with the very occasional, fairly throwaway reference to the earlier plays in the sequence. The story's told in a highly visual acrobatic way, although I'm not sure the words "story" or "told" are the right ones here, as there's little attempt to actually tell a story, or to really match any given scene with the gimmick it's had foisted on it. And at the end I really didn't know what Two Roses was actually trying to be: Gimmicky production of Shakespeare's play? Surreal adaptation? Postmodern deconstruction, with the actress playing Margaret spending most of her final scene out of character, pondering on how to approach the role?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Theatre review: Love, Love, Love

Having premiered in a touring production a couple of years ago, Mike Bartlett's tragicomic Love, Love, Love finally makes it to London in a new production at the Royal Court. Looking at the "baby boomer" generation that now famously made more money than both their parents and their children, it follows Kenneth (Ben Miles) and Sandra's (Victoria Hamilton) relationship from the 1960s to the present day. We first meet Ken as a teenage student, living in his stuffy, old-fashioned older brother Henry's flat. When Henry (Sam Troughton) brings home the girl he's been seeing, the hippieish, feminist Sandra takes more of a liking to his Beatles-loving little brother, and they bond over "All You Need Is Love" (according to Ian, the people sitting behind us were muttering in surprise that the song echoes the repeated word of the title, as if Bartlett might have named his play by accident.) A little over twenty years on we find the pair married, with two teenage kids who will very literally get caught in the middle of their parents' crumbling relationship.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Theatre review: Shiverman

New York-based playwright James Sheldon's Shiverman takes place on a fictional Pacific island, but takes its themes from real cases and customs of small islands near Papua New Guinea. Possibly-American (Paul Mooney's accent does wander a bit too much to be certain) anthropologist Roy has been studying the indigenous tribes for three years, assisted by local boy Tatalau'e (Benjamin Cawley) who's been dazzled by dreams of studying in California. When a Chinese strip-mining company looks set to raze the valley to the ground, Roy calls in Dominique (Lisa Kay,) his girlfriend and colleague, to help his appeal to UNESCO to protect the local culture, under the laws of "intangible cultural heritage." But under these regulations, a culture's human rights can only be protected if they don't violate already-established rights, and Dominique discovers what Roy's been hiding from her: Before being allowed to marry, all local girls must be raped by the tribe of "holy men."

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Theatre review: The Thing About Men

Based on a 1980s German film, Joe DiPietro (book & lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts' (music) musical The Thing About Men opens with a 15-year marriage on the rocks. Busy advertising executive Tom (Peter Gerald) has cheated on his wife before, but when he realises that Lucy (Kate Graham) is doing it as well, he moves out of their home. He then spies on her until he identifies her lover, wannabe bohemian artist Sebastian (John Addison.) This being a "musical comedy affair," the next obvious thing for Tom to do is to take on the alias of "Milo" and move in with Sebastian, who's on the lookout for a new flatmate. Initially trying to sabotage Sebastian's relationship with his wife, Tom finds himself making a new friend.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Theatre review: The Hairy Ape

Eugene O'Neill fans are spoilt for choice in That London at the moment. As the title suggests, The Hairy Ape is more the beard-and-muscles at sea side of O'Neill's canon like last year's Anna Christie, than the domestic tragedy on offer in Long Day's Journey Into Night - even if both the muscles and the beard are slightly less extravagant than Jude Law's. An odyssey of the working man in the early days of trade unionism, The Hairy Ape follows Yank (Bill Ward,) a strong, not-too-bright man who works in the guts of a luxury transatlantic liner, shoveling coal into the furnaces. It's 1922, and the daughter of the ship's owner has patronising ideas of doing something for the less well-off. But when Mildred (Emma King) visits the boiler room, Yank scares her off. Told that she thought he was a "hairy ape" (and be warned, this is one of that weird sub-genre of plays that like to remind you of the title in the dialogue a lot) Yank cracks and ends up searching the streets of New York looking for some dignity, and a place to belong.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Theatre review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is another show enjoying a Broadway-style long preview period.

I didn't grow up reading C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and my exposure to the stories as an adult hasn't made me a fan - I find the Christian allegory thunderingly unsubtle and the characters unlikeable. But the creative team of director Rupert Goold, Michael Fentiman (then assistant director, now promoted to share director credit with Goold,) designer Tom Scutt (whose 13 set I sort of wanted to marry) and composer Adam Cork (also of London Road fame) somehow made me love one of my least favourite Shakespeares, Romeo and Juliet. So could they perform a similar feat with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? No. I was at least hoping some of the religious "sub"text might be toned down a bit but from the opening where Lucy (Rebecca Benson) stands alone on stage to ask the audience if they believe in life after death, this was clearly not to be.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Theatre review: Detroit

Set in an unnamed "mid-sized" US city (although you'd have thought the play's title was a clue as to location) Lisa D'Amour's Detroit is a black comedy of American suburbia, and the latest play to come to the National from Chicago’s Steppenwolf company. Although this time only director Austin Pendleton and set designer Kevin Depinet have come with it, a new British cast replacing the original American one. Ben (Stuart McQuarrie) and Mary (Justine Mitchell,) in an attempt to reverse the trend of neighbours not knowing each other, invite the couple who've just moved next door round for a barbecue. Even when Kenny (Will Adamsdale) and Sharon (Clare Dunne) turn out to be recovering junkies whose life stories have a worrying number of holes in them, they continue to develop the friendship. But as well as having a sometimes damaging effect on each other, the two couples will also find a surprising amount of common ground.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Theatre review: Belong

I've been unconvinced by Bola Agbaje's writing so far, but Indhu Rubasingham directing a cast including Noma Dumezweni and Lucian Msamati surely made Belong at the Royal Court Upstairs worth a look. Msamati plays Kayode, a Nigerian-born British MP who's just lost his seat thanks to some unwise Twitter comments that alienated other black voters. Returning to Nigeria for a holiday at his mother's (Pamela Nomvete) home, Kayode gets caught up in local politics when Mama's protégé Kunle (Ashley Zhangazha) introduces him to the corrupt Chief Olowolaye (Richard Pepple.) After getting on the wrong side of the Chief, Kayode experiences Nigerian police corruption first hand and decides to do something about it. He ends up running in local elections, much to the surprise of wife Rita (Dumezweni) who's still at home in London.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Theatre review: Chariots of Fire

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: I seem to be having a run (ha!) of these at the moment. This one doesn't open to professional critics until next week.

I didn't know what to expect from Chariots of Fire: On the one hand there's an exciting creative team, with Mike Bartlett adapting the film for the stage, Edward Hall directing and Miriam Buether doing one of her complete redesigns of a space, here turning Hampstead Theatre into an in-the-round, miniature athletics stadium. On the other hand, the project itself seems overly safe and cynical: An Olympic story in an Olympic year, with a double helping of nostalgia - for the 1920s when the story is set, and for the much-loved 1981 film. The publicity even reassures us that yes, the show does feature the iconic Vangelis theme music. The whole thing seems such a safe bet that a West End transfer was announced before it had even started previewing. So how will the story of two rival runners on the same team, a Jewish Englishman and a Christian Scotsman, translate to the stage?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Theatre review: Written on the Heart

I was due to see Written on the Heart in a couple of weeks' time, but as the show is now closing on the 19th due to poor ticket sales my trip had to be rescheduled, and today's matinee was the only performance I could make. Years ago I enjoyed Pentecost, another RSC commission from writer David Edgar, so I was optimistic about this one, a belated entry to the 2011 celebrations of the King James Bible's 400th anniversary. Spanning 80 years, it focuses on Lancelot Andrewes (Oliver Ford Davies,) the Bishop of Ely and one of the senior members of the team trying to agree on an English translation of scripture in 1610; and the debt he owes to William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer,) who we see in a Flanders cell in 1536, awaiting execution for producing his own, colloquial translation of the Bible.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Theatre review: What the Butler Saw

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This one opens to the press next week.

Farce is definitely back in fashion at the moment and the latest classic to get a revival is Joe Orton's typically twisted take on the genre, What the Butler Saw. Sean Foley, fresh from success with The Ladykillers, directs a cast of familiar faces at the Vaudeville. Tim McInnerny is Dr Prentice, the randy head of a psychiatric clinic, whose interview of potential new secretary Geraldine (Georgia Moffett) includes a full medical checkup, for which they will both need to remove some clothing. When his wife (Samantha Bond) arrives unexpectedly, Geraldine becomes only the first of a number of half-naked people Prentice will end up trying to hide, soon to be joined by Nicholas (Nick Hendrix,) the bell-boy from a seedy nearby hotel, and Sergeant Match (Jason Thorpe,) who's looking into crimes Geraldine and Nicholas may be connected with. The final complication is Dr Rance (Omid Djalili,) here to inspect the clinic, but mainly concerned with interpreting the various dodgy goings-on in terms of bizarre mental illnesses he can put into a book.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Theatre review: Three Kingdoms

Simon Stephens' last premiere in this country, The Trial of Ubu, was notable for how much director Katie Mitchell's stylistic choices overshadowed Stephens' play as written. For the playwright's latest, Three Kingdoms, he once again puts a lot of faith in his director, in a multicultural production - the British writer is paired with a German director (Sebastian Nübling,) Estonian designer (Ene-Liis Semper) and a cast from all three countries (Estonians make up the majority of the cast, although English is the most-spoken language, with the rest surtitled.) The story appears at first to be a hard-boiled crime drama, as detectives Ignatius Stone and Charlie Lee (Nicolas Tennant and Ferdy Roberts) interrogate Tommy (Rupert Simonian,) a young man caught on CCTV trying to dispose of a bag. The bag turns out to contain a human head, belonging to a murdered Eastern European prostitute. The policemen try to find the man who paid Tommy to dump the bag, but the trail they end up following leads them first to Germany, then to Estonia, with each of the play's acts taking place in a different country.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Theatre review: Encounters

The Bush's new regime introduces two of its new Associate Artists, by pairing their existing one-woman shows in a double bill they're calling Encounters. Both shows originated in Edinburgh and have subsequently toured, and first up is Dry Ice, written and performed by Sabrina Mahfouz and directed by David Schwimmer (in a Q&A afterwards, Omar Elerian made reference to Schwimmer having directed it via Skype, a claim Mahfouz denied - I couldn't quite figure out if it was an inside joke or if Elerian had genuinely been told the show was directed via Skype.) Inspired by her time working as a waitress at a strip club, Mahfouz plays Nina, a lap dancer who narrates incidents from her life, stories about the other girls she works with and the "types" of men who come to watch them.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Theatre review: Brimstone and Treacle

Is Dennis Potter due a revival? The last time I remember there being much of a high profile to his work was just after this death in the mid-90s. Maybe Amelia Sears' production of Brimstone and Treacle could be the start of a reevaluation of his work. This has been a long time coming for me, I first saw a production of the play in Edinburgh 18 years ago, and when I still harboured a desire to work in theatre myself it was on my wish-list of plays to direct. I may have taken myself out of the running but I'm more than happy to settle for Sears' straightforward, tight production that keeps the 1970s setting and doesn't impose any high concepts on the play - but then, Brimstone and Treacle has quite enough going on by itself.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Theatre review: The Sunshine Boys

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The performance reviewed is from a little over halfway through the preview period.

Having worked together a few years ago on Equus, Richard Griffiths and director Thea Sharrock reunite in the West End for Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. For the other half of the titular double act, Danny DeVito plays Willie Clark, and physically at least you can see the two of them as an old-school vaudeville comedy act, so comically mismatched are they in size - it occurred to me at times that you could almost fit an entire DeVito in Griffiths' belly. The elderly Willie lives alone in a small New York apartment, his only regular human contact being weekly visits from his nephew, and terrible agent, Ben (Adam Levy.) When a TV network plans a retrospective on vaudeville, Willie is invited to reunite with his old partner Al Lewis (Griffiths.) The trouble is the two can't stand each other, and haven't spoken in 11 years.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Theatre review: Othello: The Remix (Q Brothers / Chicago Shakespeare Theater / Globe to Globe)

My second trip to Globe to Globe is for the US offering, the Q Brothers from Chicago who turn Shakespeare's plays into rap. Their take on Othello uses just five performers: Postell Pringle in the title role; Jackson Doran and adaptor-directors GQ and JQ (The Q Brothers) playing all the other parts; and Clayton Stamper DJ-ing on the musicians' balcony. Othello, Cassio and Iago are here members of a Hip Hop crew led by Othello who's enjoying the most personal success, partly thanks to the inspiration of singer, and now his wife, Desdemona. Some of the characters may have gone by the wayside, the handkerchief may have turned into a chunky gold chain, and a geeky Roderigo trying to impress Desdemona by selling off his Masters of the Universe action figures (Skeletor's still in the original packaging!) but the thrust of the story remains the same, lies and jealousy leading to murder and suicide.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Theatre review: Step 9 (of 12)

Director Tom Attenborough seems to be cornering the market in working with actors best-known for comedy, who want a chance to display a more dramatic side. After Ardal O'Hanlon in Port Authority, it's now The Inbetweeners' Blake Harrison who tackles a violent recovering alcoholic in Rob Hayes' Step 9 (of 12). Keith (Harrison) is on Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step programme as part of his probation. Step 9 involves seeking forgiveness to those he's hurt in the past, although Keith's method of doing so seems to largely miss the point: Naming a past offense and then demanding that he be forgiven because "it's part of his recovery." He invites foster parents Alan and Judith (Barry McCarthy and Wendy Nottingham) to his crumbling flat to relive various events, from a knife attack that proved the last straw, backwards to try and find the origins of his problems.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Theatre review: Tenet

The latest round of Artistic Director Musical Chairs is played at the Gate, where Christopher Haydon's inaugural season comes under the umbrella title "RESIST!" Evariste Galois, a 19th Century French mathematician and radical, died, possibly in a duel, at the age of 20 before getting the chance to fully explore his theories. Having struggled to find a way to tell his story on stage, Lorne Campbell (also directing) and Sandy Grierson finally hit on the unlikely technique of pairing Galois (Jon Foster) with controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Lucy Ellinson,) who quizzes the mathematician on the very specific definition of "the truth" that both men are obsessed with, in Tenet: A True Story About the Revolutionary Politics of Telling the Truth About Truth as Edited by Someone Who is Not Julian Assange in Any Literal Sense.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Theatre review: Top Hat

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Technically this doesn't open to London reviewers until next week. It's been on tour since August though, so hopefully they know what they're doing by now.

I should probably also add a disclaimer that this borders on a "not-review" because I've got a cold, and spent this show blowing my nose and feeling like death warmed up. Still, my £16 "restricted view" seat in the very back row of the Grand Circle proved good value with in fact an excellent, if distant, view of the stage - although the three rows ahead of me were empty, so perhaps in normal circumstances people's heads block the view.

A variation on the jukebox musical, there's a trend at the moment for adaptations of musicals by well-known composers - in this case Irving Berlin - with the soundtrack padded out with some of their well-known tunes from other sources. Top Hat was originally an RKO Fred-and-Ginger movie (and the programme notes have a lot of info on the studio's history, focusing especially on staff changes and brushes with bankruptcy, because everyone knows the most glamorous thing about Hollywood is the accounts.)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Theatre review: His Greatness

Inspired by an apocryphal story about Tennessee Williams near the end of his life, Daniel MacIvor's His Greatness (which doesn't name the characters in the actual dialogue but makes no secret of who they're based on) spends two days in late 1980 in a Vancouver hotel room with three gay men. The Playwright (Matthew Marsh) is in town for the opening of his latest play - actually just a rewrite of an earlier, critically panned work. Already feted as a Great American Playwright for his early plays, his most recent work has met with derision, which he responds to by burying himself in whiskey and cocaine. A former lover, now his long-term Assistant (Russell Bentley,) steers him through his schedule, his main job seeming to be keeping the Playwright sober for any public appearances. As tonight is opening night, his job also involves hiring a Young Man (Toby Wharton) to escort the Playwright to the theatre, as well as providing other services later in the evening.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Theatre review: South Downs and The Browning Version

Last year's Chichester season continues to become this year's West End season, as for the 2011 Terence Rattigan centenary they commissioned David Hare to write a companion piece to perhaps Rattigan's best-loved work, The Browning Version. Both plays are set in public schools, which Tom Scutt's set translates into polished wooden floors that fade into a dusty distance: Echoing perhaps the obscurity the characters think the institutions will fall into, as South Downs is set in the 1960s, when there was a genuine belief that public schools might be abolished. Hare's play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, plays first in the double bill, and shows us life from the point of view of the students. In particular one student, John Blakemore (Alex Lawther,) who isn't particularly popular at his High Church of England school. When he defends his best friend in class, his status as an outsider is only confirmed but Blakemore's search for answers continues, however much it aggravates his classmates.