Friday, 29 June 2012

Theatre review: Crow

Crow at Greenwich Borough Hall has no connection to the ill-fated 1994 dark superhero movie. A shame, as the cast getting shot mid-scene could only have constituted an improvement. Instead we get an adaptation of Ted Hughes' sinister trickster Crow poems, although in fact very little of Hughes' actual poetry makes it into the show, usually spoken into microphones, over action that at best tangentially relates to the words. The big draw has been the involvement of puppet company Handspring, although despite the publicity heavily quoting the positive reviews for War Horse, this is actually Handspring UK, a new spin-off company from the one that created Joey et al. And in any event, it turns out that however cleverly designed they are, small black puppets up against a black background, dimly lit, are not the feast for the eyes you might imagine.

Non-review: Playwright's Playwrights - The Starry Messenger

I'm not calling this a review as this was a one-off rehearsed reading, not a full production. While the Royal Court are at the Duke of York's Theatre, they're holding a short series of Friday afternoon readings they're calling "Playwright's Playwrights." Four Royal Court playwrights each select one of their favourite plays, and direct a rehearsed reading of it. First up is Nick Payne, who chooses Kenneth Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, which hasn't actually had a UK production yet. Set in mid-90s New York, just as a beloved old planetarium is about to be demolished and replaced with a shiny new one, it charts a brief affair between a married astronomy lecturer and a single mother. Mark (Ben Miles) teaches a weekly evening class in astronomy for beginners, his rather dry lectures punctuated by laughter from the neighbouring classroom of his more charismatic, proactive colleague Arnold (Felix Scott.) His life at home with wife Anna (Monica Dolan) seems about as lifeless as his classes. Then trainee nurse Angela (Daisy Haggard) visits the planetarium to find out about classes for her young son, and the two strike up a relationship.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Non-review: Utopia

I can't call this a review as, for the first time this year, I couldn't handle the prospect of sitting through the whole of Utopia at Soho Theatre, so Andy and I left at the interval. Directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts promised an ambitious project that invited a variety of writers, comedians, musicians and politicians to eschew art's tendency to look on the dark side. Instead they were to think positive and contribute their own visions of Utopia. None of this is actually apparent on stage: Instead six performers who deserve better (Tobi Bakare, Laura Elphinstone, Rufus Hound, Pamela Miles, Sophia Myles, David Whitaker) struggle through a substandard student revue, in which a number of sketches are split up and presented in installments over a long, boring, unfunny first hour. I struggled to see what most of them had to do with the subject matter; the rest tackled Utopia from a uniformly bleak perspective of how unattainable it, or anything close to it, is.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Theatre review: Equus

Peter Shaffer's 1973 play Equus is in part responsible for this blog's existence: I directed a few scenes from the play as part of my degree, which meant the 2007 West End revival caught my interest at a time when I'd lost my enthusiasm for theatre. That production helped spark that enthusiasm again, perhaps a bit too much so since here we are with me almost physically addicted to theatre. Michael Cabot's touring production for London Classic Theatre originally ran last year, but was well-received enough to be revived with most of the same cast, and this time the tour takes in my neck of the woods so I got a chance to see another take on the play. Alan Strang (Matthew Pattimore,) a 17-year-old boy with a Saturday job at a stable, blinded six horses in the course of one night. He's referred to child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Malcolm James) who gradually uncovers the history of sexual repression and religious indoctrination that led Alan first to create his own religion based around horses, and then to turn violently against his god.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Theatre review: The Drawer Boy

In 1972, a Canadian theatre company sent its actors out to various Ontario farms, to spend the summer working there and observing life in order to create a devised play. The resulting piece was considered a seminal part of Canadian theatre-making, but Michael Healey's gentle but compelling 1999 play The Drawer Boy imagines how that summer's research might have affected both the actors, and the farmers whose lives it put under the spotlight. Miles (Simon Lee Phillips,) a young actor, is taken in at a farm occupied by two elderly men, once childhood friends who went on to fight in World War II together. Angus (John Bett) received an injury that left him with a metal plate in his head, migraines and a memory that can hold on to almost nothing except numbers. Morgan (Neil McCaul) tends to the farm, looks after his friend, and nightly tells him a fairytale version of their lives, Angus' war injury and the English girls they loved and lost.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Theatre review: The Prophet

The second in Christopher Haydon's debut trio of plays about revolution and revolutionaries, and his first as director since taking over at the Gate, takes us to the "Friday of Rage," the 28th of January 2011, early in the eighteen days of Egyptian uprising against President Mubarak. Hassan Abdulrazzak's The Prophet is partly assembled from interviews with a number of Egyptians who took part in the marches, but instead of presenting them as a verbatim piece, the author wraps them up in the story of an apparently ordinary middle-class couple. Layla (Sasha Behar) is an engineer for Vodafone, which puts her on the wrong side of her own principles when the government demand the mobile network be cut off to stop the protesters communicating with each other. Hisham (Nitzan Sharron) is a former journalist who's written one well-received novel. His follow-up book, about a prophet figure in modern-day Egypt, is stalled by writer's block.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (RSC / RST, Noël Coward Theatre & tour)

Though I've seen the odd good production, Julius Caesar has never been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. There's an awful lot of surreptitious plotting, and for years all attempts to get away from the play's togas-and-sandals image seemed to turn the conspirators into identikit business-suited politicians. In recent years slightly more diverse interpretations seem to have been given a chance again, and Gregory Doran, in his penultimate RSC show as Chief Associate before he officially takes over as Artistic Director, turns Rome into a turbulent African nation. The set is a town square whose concrete seems to have had some bomb damage, overshadowed by a huge statue of Caesar. A community chorus has been enlisted to help fill the stage, and as we enter the party is in full swing, celebrating his victory over Pompey.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Theatre review: The Last of the Haussmans

Old hippie Judy Haussman (Julie Walters) has just had a cancer scare, and Social Services have warned they're not happy with the state her house is in. Her children return to the cluttered Devon home they grew up in, but highly-strung daughter Libby (Helen McCrory) is convinced Judy has an ulterior motive: To get them to tidy up the house so she can sell it and deny them their inheritance. With its look at how a generation who said they were trying to save the world actually left it in a worse state for their children, Stephen Beresford's play The Last of the Haussmans shares some similarities with Love, Love, Love, whose final act also saw a family reunite at a Devon house in the summer. Fortunately this establishes its own identity, and ultimately a very different core of characters with their own dynamic.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Theatre review: The Tempest (RSC / RST & Roundhouse)

Distracted from his duties as Duke of Milan by his books of magic, Prospero was deposed in a coup by his brother Antonio and the King of Naples, Alonso. Washed up with his infant daughter on a remote island, he used his magic to rule it, enslaving its one human inhabitant and the various spirits, led by Ariel. 12 years later the royal families of Milan and Naples happen to sail by, and Prospero conjures The Tempest responsible for the next shipwreck in the RSC's "What country friends is this?" trilogy. Jon Bausor's set here becomes a much more expressionistic island of warped and broken floorboards, scattered with boulders and harshly lit by fluorescent lights. As with Twelfth Night, David Farr directs, and comes up with another uneven production that shines in the big setpieces, but struggles with the play's hefty exposition.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Theatre review: Fear

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

Madani Younis' opening season as Artistic Director of the Bush hasn't quite set the world alight, in my opinion at least, as we reach its final production. TV and filmmaker Dominic Savage writes and directs Fear, a short drama that pits two of the media's most hated figures of recent years, bankers and hoodies, against each other. Kieran (Aymen Hamdouchi) hangs around wealthy areas with his friend Jason (Jason Maza,) teaching him how to spot the richest businessmen to mug should they venture into the wrong back alley. Banker Gerald (Rupert Evans) has a couple of homes, an upcoming deal that'll make him a multi-millionaire, and a pregnant wife, Amanda (Louise Delamere.) The set, by takis, is gleaming white, and under the clear plastic floor you can just about see a row of gravestones - pointing the way to how the encounter will go when Gerald and Kieran finally meet.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Theatre review: Henry V (Shakespeare's Globe)

Two years ago Dominic Dromgoole directed a pair of Henry IV plays at Shakespeare's Globe that were among the best productions of those plays I've seen, and which made it into my top ten shows of 2010. It was no secret at the time that Jamie Parker, who played Prince Hal, was keen to continue the character's journey as Henry V, and he now gets the chance to show us what kind of king his Hal became. The good news is Parker is a fantastic Henry, his biggest strength the big speeches that he gives a genuinely rousing quality, making this a leader people would plausibly give their lives for. The bad news is that he's giving this performance in a production that gets utterly bogged down in the multiple military campaigns and abortive attempts at diplomacy that make up the play's action.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Theatre review: The Witness

The Royal Court has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last week, what with the Jez Butterworth debacle, and them freezing their loyal friends and members out of advance bookings for £10 Mondays Upstairs (look out for the next podcast to find out how much of my extended rant on the subject made the cut.) It's a shame that this rather overshadows a prime example of how the theatre got such a loyal fanbase in the first place, in an Upstairs play about a difficult subject, but one which creates one of the most compelling human dramas on the London stage at the moment. Following her hit debut Mogadishu¹ last year, Vivienne Franzmann's second play The Witness looks at the world of war photographers, people who bring atrocities to the attention of the wider public, but at a cost both to themselves and the victims. It does so through an intimate family drama, Lizzie Clachan's ingenious in-the-round set putting the audience by the walls, behind the bookcases and up the stairs of a North London family home.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Theatre review: Summer and Smoke

Running for a short season in Southwark Playhouse's second space, Summer and Smoke offers a familiar Tennessee Williams cocktail of madness, drug dependency and sexual repression in the stifling heat of the American South (a sign on the door warns there will be smoking onstage; but anyone who's been in The Vault even on the hottest day knows there's no way summer will ever make an appearance in there.) Alma (Kate Lamb) is the local minister's daughter, restrained and proper in a town that loves to gossip. The familiar Williams spectre of madness hangs over her in the shape of her mother, who since her nervous breakdown loves nothing more than spitting vitriol at her family (except maybe ice cream.) Despite this Alma seems to be getting on with her life until the newly-qualified Dr John Buchanan (Curran McKay) returns to town. They grew up next door to each other and old feelings now get reawakened.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Re-review: Tender Napalm

Last year I voted Philip Ridley's Tender Napalm one of my shows of the year; this year David Mercatali's production returns to Southwark Playhouse at the end of a tour. When the revival was announced, I said I hoped if both of the original actors couldn't return, that neither would, as I could more easily accept a whole new couple than Jack Gordon or Vinette Robinson trying to recreate their onstage relationship with someone new. As it happens we do get a whole new cast, Tom Byam Shaw and Lara Rossi slipping into the roles of the Man and Woman throwing Ridley's violent love poetry at each other, their dark fantasies helping them cope with a devastating loss.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Theatre review: The Physicists

Three shows in and it's harder than ever to see what identity Josie Rourke is trying to give the Donmar Warehouse under her Artistic Directorship: She takes the director's reins again for Jack Thorne's new translation of The Physicists, Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1962 satire of Cold War fears. In the old wing of an insane asylum, only three patients remain. Two think they're famous physicists, Albert Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Sir Isaac Newton (Justin Salinger.) The third, Möbius (John Heffernan) is a physicist, who believes King Solomon appears to him daily to impart wisdom. As the play opens, Einstein and Newton have each murdered one of the nurses; and Möbius' relationship with his own nurse (Miranda Raison) seems to be following an uncomfortably similar pattern. I've seen people name-check Doctor Strangelove with regard to the play, and there's certainly a sense of the gently, but threateningly surreal to the affair.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Theatre review: The Rest Is Silence

The latest radical reworking of a familiar text as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, dreamthinkspeak's The Rest Is Silence is a "meditation on Hamlet" (I know, but achingly pretentious publicity doesn't always mean an achingly pretentious show; just most of the time.) A promenade production, it puts the audience in the middle of a room surrounded by glass screens, like an aquarium. The tanks behind the screens light up in turn to reveal an Elsinore conceived as a gleaming modern luxury apartment. (There's also a persistent smell of rotting rubbish, but I don't think that's part of the design, just that Riverside Studios has the audience enter via an alley by the bins.)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (RSC / RST & Roundhouse)

It feels like so long since I saw a good Twelfth Night (the last one I really enjoyed was Michael Grandage's Donmar West End production in 2009) that I was starting to wonder if I'd completely imagined ever liking the play. So I was hoping for something special from David Farr's production for the RSC, currently visiting the Roundhouse as part of the "What country friends is this?" season. In rep with The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, they're also calling the season Shakespeare's Shipwreck Trilogy (the RSC having realised Shakespeare wrote a shipwreck trilogy only after originally announced plans to include Pericles in the season got quietly shelved.) This particular shipwreck brings twins Viola and Sebastian to Illyria, here a dilapidated hotel in Greece in Jon Bausor's design. Each thinking the other drowned, Viola pretends to be a boy, and gets caught in the love games between the Duke Orsino (whom she has recently fallen for) and the disinterested object of Orsino's affection, Olivia, who now takes a shine to the "boy" Viola.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Theatre review: Merrie England

The Finborough Theatre has a policy of running smaller-scale productions on Sundays and Mondays, on the set of its main Tuesday-Friday show. I've avoided these because once I do something it tends to become habit-forming. But three theatre-free days in a row in my diary had me getting the cold sweats (how I'll cope in August's theatrical wasteland is anyone's guess) so I booked for the current rep show. While the rest of the country's been fussing over the sequel's jubilee, the Finborough have revived Edward German and Basil Hood's long-forgotten Merrie England, featuring the original Queen Elizabeth. German and Hood were hailed at the turn of the 20th century as the natural successors to Gilbert and Sullivan, and fans of that style of operetta should find much to enjoy here.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Theatre review: Mad About the Boy

Gbolahan Obisesan's playlet Mad About the Boy offers a short, sharp look at the current generation of teenagers and centres on the idea of respect: Dad (Jason Barnett) belongs to a generation who believed you should give respect; his Boy (Bayo Gbadamosi) belongs to one that demands it categorically. Somewhere between them is Man (Simon Darwen,) who says his generation earned their respect. Man is the school counselor, earnestly trying to help the Boy whose behaviour is getting increasingly out of control; his single father seems to be just as much in need of help to figure out what the hell to do with his son. Obisesan gives us a series of scenes between two or all three of the men, employing a risky form of dramatic poetry that sees the cast speedily alternating short lines, a technique with the potential to go horribly wrong.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Theatre review: Boys

This week's theatregoing on POV is sponsored by testosterone: After Monday's posh boys, Tuesday's army boys and Wednesday's boys who sleep with boys, I end the week with two plays with "boy" in the title. Ella Hickson's Boys is set in an Edinburgh flat during a heatwave that unfortunately coincides with a binmen's strike. Mack (Samuel Edward Cook) and Benny (Danny Kirrane) are students who've just graduated. They share their flat with chef Timp (Tom Mothersdale) and violin prodigy Cam (Lorn Macdonald,) all living the stereotypical student lifestyle of drink, drugs and sex. With Mack and Benny having to confront life after university, a riot on the streets coincides with a riot among the friends.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Theatre review: Torch Song Trilogy

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This one officially opens to critics next week.

Having had one of their biggest-ever hits with La Cage Aux Folles, it's perhaps not that surprising that the Menier Chocolate Factory have turned to Harvey Fierstein's work again; although as despite the title Torch Song Trilogy isn't a musical, it may not reach quite as big an audience. Fierstein's three short plays from the late 1970s, later rewritten into a single show, follow drag queen Arnold (David Bedella) over the course of six years, and through his ever-shifting relationship with the bisexual Ed (Joe McFadden.) In the opening act, The International Stud, it's just the two of them on stage, getting together then parting when Ed falls for a woman. In Fugue in a Nursery, Ed is now married to Laurel (Laura Pyper,) and Arnold visits for the weekend, accompanied by his new boyfriend Alan (Tom Rhys Harries.) The final section, Widows and Children First, sees Albert dealing with family: His mother (Sara Kestelman) is about to visit, unaware that the real reason she's been invited is to meet David, (Perry Millward,) the gay teenager Arnold is in the process of adopting.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Theatre review: Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun

Set in the freezing West German winter of 1954, John McGrath's Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, the latest long-unperformed classic to be revived by the Finborough, takes a very personal angle on the frustrations of the Cold War. The Bofors Gun has long since been obsolete but on a British Army base the official line is that it still needs to be guarded in case the Russians try to steal it. Six gunners, led by an 18-year-old Lance-Bombardier, have the pointless task (so clearly only for show that their guns aren't even loaded) tonight - to add insult to injury they've just been paid so the unnecessary duty keeps them from joining the rest of the regiment in celebrating. When Lance-Bombardier Evans allows the volatile Gunner O'Rourke to slip away and pick up his weekly tobacco allowance, things go badly wrong.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Re-review: Posh

I saw Laura Wade's Posh when it was first performed at the Royal Court in 2010, and despite not being entirely sold on it at the time, booked again for its belated West End transfer: Two years ago the story of an Oxford "dining" club for the incredibly rich and privileged was seen in the context of the election, and the people who were likely to soon be running the country; I was interested to see how the play bears up in the hindsight of two years with those people in charge. Despite the long gap in transferring, six of the original 10 members of the Riot Club have come along to the Duke of York's (including Joshua McGuire, interestingly opting to reprise this instead of his Globe Hamlet from last year; maybe a summer in the West End was more appealing than another regional tour.) They're joined by Max Bennett as Harry, Pip Carter as Hugo, Edward Killingback (Yeah!) Them Motherfuckers Don't Know How To Act (Yeah!) as Miles and Harry Lister Smith as Ed. The club have had to take a few terms off after Toby (Jolyon Coy) got careless and their exploits made the papers. Now they're determined to pick up where they left off with their once-a-term tradition: A private dinner in a village gastro-pub, topped off by trashing the place, and throwing cash at the landlord to keep quiet about it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Theatre review: Antigone

At Southwark Playhouse last year, Tom Littler's Middle East-set Antigone became unexpectedly topical when it coincided with the death of Osama bin Laden, and the unceremonious disposal of his body. This year, Polly Findlay's production at the National very consciously exploits the parallels, opening with a tableau that recreates the famous photo of President Obama and his staff watching the raid unfold. This, then, is Antigone as The West Wing, Soutra Gilmour's set creating the hectic offices of Government, as well as the back corridors where we first find Jodie Whittaker's Antigone and her sister Ismene (Annabel Scholey) discussing in hushed tones what's to be done with the remains of their brother Polyneices: Having led an army against his native Thebes, the new King Creon has decreed that his body is to be left unburied and unmourned as a warning to others. If Antigone defies her uncle's orders and buries her brother, the penalty is death. If she doesn't, she's disobeying the gods themselves.