Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Re-review: The Woman in Black

I had the chance to revisit West End long-runner (23 years now) The Woman in Black for free, and as I quite enjoyed it the first time I was happy to give it another look. With the film version having come out this year the story is more familiar than ever (though there are a few differences between stage and screen story) but Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's novel gets its scares in a strictly theatrical way that means it keeps its own identity. The current cast is Ken Drury as Kipps, the man with a story he's finally decided to tell after decades of silence; and Adam Best as the young actor he hires to help him present his reminiscences to an audience. The relationship between the two forms the backbone of the play, a surprising amount of the running time dedicated to the older man going from painfully awkward performer to enthusiastic thespian, throwing himself into all the supporting roles. The actor meanwhile plays Kipps' younger self when, as a junior lawyer, he was dispatched to the remote home of a recently-deceased client to sort out her papers, only to discover things that go bump in the night.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Theatre review: An Incident at the Border

The basic premise of An Incident at the Border is so simple it feels as if it should be the basis for a well-known absurdist classic, but Kieran Lynn's one-act play is actually getting its world premiere in the Finborough's Sunday-Monday slot. A young couple, Arthur and Olivia (Tom Bennett and Florence Hall) are enjoying a lazy day feeding the ducks in the park, when a Border Guard (Marc Pickering) arrives with a roll of tape. Their country has just been divided in two, and the new border runs right through the park bench they're sitting on. Unfortunately this means Arthur has not only ended up in a different country to his girlfriend, he's technically in a hostile foreign country, without any identification papers, and it could take years before there's even a procedure in place for him to legally cross the line back home.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Theatre review: A Soldier in Every Son - The Rise of the Aztecs

Playing a short run (but apparently not short enough - today's final matinee was only half full) as the third play in the RSC's "Nations At War" season in the Swan, Luis Mario Moncada's A Soldier in Every Son takes its title from a line in the Mexican National Anthem, and its story from the country's oral history. The ensemble from Richard III and King John are boosted by a handful of actors from Mexico's Compañía Nacional de Teatro, and Roxana Silbert directs. As the play opens in the late 14th century, three royal families each rule their own kingdom, power shifting and being maintained through diplomacy, the payment of tributes to each other, tactical marriages and, when all these fail, outbreaks of violence. Somewhere in the background lurk the Aztecs, a tribe of "savages" nobody sees as much of a serious threat.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare's Globe)

It's far from being one of my favourite Shakespeares but The Taming of the Shrew has been cropping up a lot lately and now comes to Shakespeare's Globe in a production I was mostly looking forward to because Samantha Spiro would be taking on the role of Katherina. An incredibly tricky comedy to stage for a modern audience, it's one I always feel has to be overcome rather than simply interpreted. All the eligible bachelors of Padua are after the beautiful heiress Bianca, youngest daughter of Baptista. But before any of her suitors can win her hand, Baptista insists that his older daughter Katherina be married off first. This will be harder than it seems, as Katherina is famed for her bad temper. Enter Petruchio (Simon Paisley Day,) who says he'll not only marry the "Shrew" for her hefty dowry, but also tame her (through starvation and sleep deprivation) into the perfect wife.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Theatre review: The Doctor's Dilemma

While a lot has been written about the topicality of a play being revived in the Olivier (Timon of Athens, which I won't be seeing until next week,) the National's middle stage is also playing host to a classic play with a lot of current relevance. The Doctor's Dilemma, which has just opened at the Lyttelton, is Bernard Shaw's look at the medical profession, and in particular the dangers that private medicine (which we seem to be steadily being pushed back towards) can hold. The title does what it says on the tin: Sir Colenso Ridgeon is a Harley Street doctor with a cure for tuberculosis that's still in the trial stages but which he thinks will guarantee success. Limited funds mean he can only treat ten patients, and he has to decide who gets the last available place: Selfless, generous but unremarkable Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson,) who's treated the poor for years while his own health fails; or Louis Dubedat, a talented artist with an appalling personality.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Theatre review: Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams' later work is ripe for rediscovery: Like Terence Rattigan, he fell out of favour with critics and public alike, but unlike Rattigan he doesn't seem to have let this get to him, and continued to have a prolific output. Having been rehabilitated as one of the greatest 20th century playwrights after his death, his early hit plays are now frequently revived, but perhaps due to lack of familiarity these little-loved, at the time, later works remain obscure but worthy of reevaluation. Dating from 1977, Vieux Carré, which is revived by Robert Chevara at the King's Head, has much in common with those early hit melodramas. But where The Glass Menagerie sees a Williams-substitute character in a family context, here the playwright's alter-ego, a nameless young Writer (Tom Ross-Williams) has fled the nest to New Orleans, to a crumbling boarding house in the titular district.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Theatre review: The Complete World of Sports (abridged)

I don't know if you've heard, but there's some kind of sports event coming to That London later this week. As you might expect, I'm mainly seeing it as something that'll get in the way of my theatregoing, but apart from that I tried for the longest time not to be predictably pessimistic about it, and to see The Event That Must Not Be Named as a good thing. But a year's worth of official warnings that everyone who lives in London should give up now and go live in a ditch has made that resolve hard to stick to. Similarly, I was hoping that the Reduced Shakespeare Company, whose original show is still being revived by other companies and still funny, would come up with another hit in their look at the history of sports. But a couple of laugh-free hours of The Complete World of Sports (abridged) proved this to be too optimistic a hope as well. It's performed by Matt Rippy and writer/directors Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, who are all likeable enough performers - shame about the material.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Non-review: Playwright's Playwrights - Across Oka

Word of mouth must have got out for the Royal Court's Playwright's Playwrights season of Friday afternoon readings at the Duke of York's, as its final installment was reasonably well-attended despite having probably the least starry cast of all the plays featured. The play itself might have been expected to keep people away as well, since David Eldridge is the last playwright asked to choose and direct one of the works that inspired him, and somewhat inevitably he's plumped for Robert Holman, whose Making Noise Quietly baffled, bored and irritated audiences in equal measure when it was revived at the Donmar a couple of months ago. The play Eldridge has chosen is another 1980s piece with themes of war at its heart, Across Oka, Holman's quietly tragic culture clash between East and West during the (by now thawing) Cold War.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Theatre review: Henry V (Propeller)

Henry V is the Shakespeare that's hard to avoid this year and after a thoroughly disappointing one at the Globe I was optimistic that Propeller would rehabilitate the play for me. Paired with their take on The Winter's Tale, Ed Hall's all-male company tackle one of Shakespeare's most testosterone-fueled plays (its whole story is essentially the progress of one military campaign) and, as you'd expect, don't hold back. Michael Pavelka's design gives us a modern-dress production with much of the cast remaining onstage throughout, a laddish regiment in desert camouflage gear delivering the Chorus' speeches. In keeping with the play's overt theatricality that asks us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, most of the costume changes simply involve the actors pulling on additional clothing over their combat gear.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Theatre review: The Fear of Breathing

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Fear of Breathing doesn't open to official reviewers until tomorrow.

Last night on the way back from the theatre Richard asked me what I was seeing next; I said it was something about the Syrian revolution. Richard thought I must have got it wrong because that's still happening, but that's the thing about Dame Theatre, in many ways it can be one of the most up-to-the-minute ways of responding to a situation. The Fear of Breathing is a verbatim piece by Zoe Lafferty based on interviews she conducted along with Ruth Sherlock and Paul Wood, probably putting themselves in some danger in the process as there was a ban on journalists, as well as restrictions of the movements of foreign nationals within Syria. What the play, which Lafferty also directs, achieves is to give a vivid picture of revolution from the inside, as activists ranging from those making symbolic (but still potentially dangerous) gestures all the way to members of the revolutionary Free Army, tell and relive their stories.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dance review: Play Without Words

Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words, which he first produced at the National ten years ago, gets revived for a tour to mark the 25th anniversary of Bourne's New Adventures company. Set in 1965, with a jazzy, trumpet-heavy score by Terry Davies, the show is based on Robin Maugham's The Servant and Joseph Losey's film version. Bourne's dance retelling of a story of multiple infidelities uses up to three dancers at a time to play each character: Anthony (Adam Maskell, Chris Trenfield, Richard Winsor) initially resists the temptation of housemaid Sheila (Anabel Kutay, Hannah Vassallo) but eventually succumbs, only to be caught by his manservant Prentice (Daniel Collins, Alastair Postlethwaite, Neil Westmoreland.) Prentice blackmails his boss with the information, but Anthony's fiancée Glenda (Madelaine Brennan, Saranne Curtin, Anjali Mehra) is herself cheating with a mystery man.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Custom/Practice / Almeida & Edinburgh Assembly)

Doing a few performances as part of this year's Almeida Festival (prior to an Edinburgh Fringe run next month) is new-ish theatre company Custom/Practice's take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. The night before Duke Theseus' wedding, two young couples run away to the woods. Also there are a band of workmen, rehearsing a ludicrous amateur play they intend to perform at the royal wedding. Both groups get caught up in the machinations of Oberon (Liam Mansfield) and Titania (Kemi-bo Jacobs,) King and Queen of the Fairies, and Oberon's henchman Puck (Lanre Malaolu, who coincidentally I also saw play Puck when he understudied the role at the RSC last year.) Rae McKen's production opens with a high concept of a group of schoolkids being made to read A Midsummer Night's Dream for detention, only for Puck to take on the guise of their teacher and make them inhabit the roles for real.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Theatre review: Richard III (RSC / Swan)

There's many legendary speeches in Shakespeare, which must be nerve-wracking for any actor. Most of them turn up well into the play, and clever choices by directors and actors can even sometimes make them take you by surprise. But Richard III's most famous line, "Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York" is the play's very first, so as the lead actor enters, much of the audience will be wondering how he'll deliver it. Some might even know the speech so well they find themselves muttering it under their breath, like a woman in the front row of the Swan did today. A few lines into the speech Jonjo O'Neill turned, smiled at her and said "Yes, that's it. You know it?" It set the tone for what kind of Richard we were in for: Having done his time as a member of the EnsembleTM, O'Neill returns to the RSC as the star turn, to play the Duke of Gloucester as the consummate actor, playing to and flirting with the crowd.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Non-review: Playwright's Playwrights - Abide With Me

In the series' third week it's Roy Williams' turn to choose his "playwright's playwright," and he opts for Barrie Keeffe, whose work he says showed him that theatre was the right medium for him to tell stories of working-class people. Williams directs a rehearsed reading of Abide With Me, the middle play of Keeffe's 1977 Barbarians trilogy. The turnout this afternoon at the Duke of York's was better than for the first play, but unsurprisingly not on a par with last week's invasion of Cumberfans. Of course, for the sort of people who booked these readings long before the casts were announced, today's lineup of Daniel Kaluuya and Sam Swann is starry enough anyway. (The third cast member, Morgan Watkins, I don't think I've seen on stage before, although his face seems familiar from TV - I'm pretty sure he was in the most recent series of Silk.)

Theatre review: Chicken

As a tiny West End venue that'll take on any small-scale production that can raise the cash, Trafalgar Studio 2 is always worth keeping an eye on for surprise gems. But by the same token you also get more than your fair share of shows whose very existence on a stage is baffling. Which brings us to New York playwright Mike Batistick's Chicken, a play I'm stumped how to even begin describing, as I'm none the wiser about what Batistick was trying to say with it. Wendell (Craig Kelly) Lives with his heavily pregnant wife Lina (Lisa Maxwell) in a tiny Bronx apartment, and for the last few months Wendell's unemployed oldest friend Floyd (George Georgiou) has been staying on their couch. Wendell wants Floyd to leave, but instead Floyd brings home a sick rooster, which he hopes they can nurse back to health so it can win them a fortune in a cockfight.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Theatre review: Mack and Mabel

The onstage preoccupation with the early years of Hollywood that's been an occasional theme this year returns with a revival of Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman's 1974 musical Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse. Once again, the unforgiving space of the Vault has been given over to a musical but, perhaps thanks to the fact that he's worked there before with last year's Parade, director Thom Southerland has managed to get over the dodgy acoustics that plague the venue. Designer Jason Denvir has reconfigured the seating into a wide, shallow thrust, with a bank of seating and a curtain blocking the Vault's visually impressive double tunnels, along with their tendency to absorb every word anyone sings in there. The show charts the rise and fall of Keystone Studios through the turbulent relationship of director Mack Sennett (Norman Bowman) and Mabel Normand (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) the starlet he first discovered working at a deli.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Theatre review: The Winter's Tale (Propeller)

The first time I saw The Winter's Tale, at the RSC some time in the '90s, I remember really enjoying it, but subsequent productions have put me off the play: It's famously varied in tone and style, lurching from a dark drama of jealousy into a raucous pastoral comedy, before veering off into a gently lyrical fairytale ending. All too often it seems to descend into something maudlin and flat, and it's one Shakespeare play I've most often been bored in. This year it's one of the two shows being toured by Ed Hall's all-male Propeller company, which for the second year is taking up residence for a fortnight at Hampstead. I was optimistic that a company with such a distinct identity and joyous performance style  could reawaken what I'd originally liked about the play. Andy, meanwhile, was new both to The Winter's Tale and to Propeller.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Theatre review: The Fix

Director Michael Strassen seems to be drawn to musicals about American politics: After killing off a bunch of US Presidents in Assassins a couple of years ago, he returns to the Union to tell the story of a man groomed all his life for high office in The Fix. When an apparently sure-thing Presidential candidate in the early 1960s has an erotic asphyxiation mishap, his widow Violet (Liz May Brice) decides that if she can't be the wife of the President she'll be his mother, and focuses on feckless, big-haired son Cal (Louis Maskell.) With the aid of Cal's wheelchair-bound uncle Grahame (Miles Western) doing spin-doctor duties, the perfect career trajectory to the White House is planned. But Cal proves harder to harder to control than expected: His womanising, cocaine addiction and association with a local mob boss can be easily dealt with, but his tendency to be honest at unexpected moments is another problem altogether.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Theatre review: Birthday

The Royal Court made a big deal of keeping the plot of Joe Penhall's new play on their main stage, Birthday, a tightly-wrapped secret until the the show opened so that it would catch audiences by surprise. Which is fine for previews and up until Press Night, but once the publicity photos were released the secret was very much out as well. So for the majority of the audience the play will have to stand or fall by its own merits. If you're planning to see the show and have so far remained unspoiled, I'd recommend skipping the rest of this review. Vanessa didn't know the twist and it was fun to hear her reaction as the set revolved and she twigged what was going on. Penhall's subject here is the current state of the NHS, and based on his experience of the birth of his own child he gives us the story of Ed (Stephen Mangan) and Lisa (Lisa Dillon) who have just gone into a maternity hospital expecting their second child.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Theatre review: Democracy

After the craziness of Noises Off, a different side to Michael Frayn's work comes to the Old Vic. Plugging a gap before the venue goes into Olympic hibernation is a transfer from Sheffield, Paul Miller's production of Democracy. And it's another in the batch of Cold War plays that have been an unlikely theme in London lately, charting the early 1970s through the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt (Patrick Drury.) As the play opens Brandt is the head of a tenuous coalition with the Liberal party, and the first left-wing West German government since the War. He plans to make advances towards healing the rift with the Eastern Bloc, who are themselves keen to find out if he can be trusted: We see the story through the eyes of Günter Guillaume (Aidan McArdle,) an East German sleeper agent reporting back to his handler (Ed Hughes.) Gossip is rife of a spy in the ranks, but the comically dull Guillaume goes unsuspected, gradually being given positions of trust next to Brandt.

Non-review: Playwright's Playwrights - Look Back in Anger

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger is surely the best-known of the four "Playwright's Playwrights" readings being presented by the Royal Court at the Duke of York's. It's so iconic that despite hot having seen it on stage before, the first act especially was very familiar to me, and I know I'm not the only person who found that to be the case. (In fact this familiarity did mean this week's reading lacked one of the joys of last week's, of the cast discovering the play as the audience do.) But the reason the theatre was, in stark contrast to last week's sparse but enthusiastic crowd, packed to the rafters today wasn't entirely to do with the play: It had been announced that Benedict Cumberbatch would play the archetypal Angry Young Man, Jimmy Porter, and St Martin's Lane was packed with fans long before kick-off. Jimmy lives in a small apartment with wife Alison (Rebecca Hall) and their friend Cliff (handsome Welshman Matt Ryan.) These two help each other bear the brunt of Jimmy's constant furious outbursts, taking out his frustrations about life in general on the pair of them. The combination of Alison becoming pregnant, and the arrival of her old friend Helena (Anna Maxwell Martin) coming to visit, effects a change in the status quo.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

Although I've heard of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening and knew roughly what it was about, I'd never seen the original play on stage before. So I now come to it from the unusual position of being very familiar with the much-loved (but not by enough people to keep it open) musical adaptation. Would I be able to see it as anything other than the show I liked with the best bits taken out? The story revolves around three teenagers: Wendla (Ana Luderowski) is 14, and keeps asking her mother for the facts of life, but gets only evasive answers. Moritz (Joe Sowerbutts) isn't that bright, his life mainly consisting of studying for exams he has no chance of passing; having had it drummed into him that academic success is everything, the prospect of failing is enough to turn his thoughts to suicide. Meanwhile the central figure of Melchior (David Palmstrom) is a bit too clever for his own good: Seeing himself as an atheist and iconoclast, he's taught himself about sex from books, and his attempts to share his knowledge with his classmates will backfire horribly.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Theatre review: A Doll's House

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This opens to professional critics next week.

I'm not the biggest Ibsen fan (too often it's three hours of boringly-staged misery) but have seen enough good productions of his work to persevere with it. Having booked for the Young Vic's production of A Doll's House I was further worried by the casting of Hattie Morahan as Nora - she's an actress a lot of people are crazy about but whose performances I've often found insufferably smug. The good news is, Carrie Cracknell's production overturns all my worries about writer and cast. Over the course of Christmas 1878, a Norwegian wife and mother's life falls apart: The secret debts she got into years ago to help her husband Torvald are coming back to haunt her, along with the revelation that Nora committed fraud to secure the loan. But for all the worries that cripple her over the holiday, what she doesn't realise is that the biggest blow will be finding out what Torvald really thinks of her.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Theatre review: The Comedy of Errors (RSC / RST & Roundhouse)

The last, for me, in the "What country friends is this?" season (although the first written) is The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's silliest play, featuring two pairs of identical twins, a gold chain and a fair bit of extramarital shagging, both intentional and accidental. Antipholus of Syracuse (Jonathan McGuinness) arrives in Ephesus with his servant Dromio (Bruce Mackinnon.) They try to blend in and do so a bit too well, unaware that they're being mistaken for their twin brothers, also called Anthipholus (Stephen Hagan) and Dromio (Felix Hayes.) And yes, it continues to irritate me that Antipholus of Syracuse doesn't put two and two together when he actually knows he has an identical twin out there somewhere, which is why he set sail from Syracuse in the first place, to find him; let's just put it down to him being a massive idiot and get on with the review.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Theatre review: The Only True History of Lizzie Finn

Sebastian Barry's The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, set in the late Victorian era, introduces us to Lizzie (Shereen Martin,) an Irish can-can dancer in Weston-super-Mare. When she falls for troubled Boer War veteran Robert Gibson (Justin Avoth) her marriage takes her back to the home country she'd hoped not to return to. The daughter of a pair of travelling entertainers, her new life as mistress of a grand house is a big change however: She may appear to have risen in the world, but the Gibsons no longer own as much land as they once did, and the close-knit community don't take well to a lady of the manor with a past like Lizzie's, and the family are snubbed. Blanche McIntyre's production at Southwark Playhouse is played out on a multi-level set surrounded by tea-lights and with a channel of water running along the front of the stage, a fire-and-water theme running throughout the play.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Dance review: Cruising, Clubbing, Fucking: an elegy

Cruising, Clubbing, Fucking at Soho Theatre is meant to coincide with the World Pride Day celebrations; although of course if it had been an official part of this year's Pride, it would most probably have been cancelled, like most of the rest of the events. Instead its brief run at Soho Theatre Upstairs (with a short tour to follow) has gone ahead, ending today. As with Torch Song Trilogy, this is another show that looks at a specifically pre-AIDS gay lifestyle in New York, although unlike that show this was only conceived and created this year, so as the subtitle - an elegy - suggests, it's a mournful look back at a hedonistic world that no longer exists. Specifically from the point of view of someone too young to have experienced it himself: Co-deviser and choreographer Joseph Mercier wishes he could have been around in 1978 New York to experience it, and instead has conducted interviews with men who were there. These, along with the writing of people like Derek Jarman, form the basis of his dance piece, which Mercier performs with his co-deviser Sebastian Langueneur.