Monday, 31 December 2012

2012: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

First and foremost, thanks everyone who's visited this blog and made 2012 a busy first year for Partially Obstructed View. I hope you found something worth reading here, and maybe even the odd recommendation for a show you ended up loving. Like most bloggers, I can't resist the temptation to inflict my own judgement upon the year just gone, like I did for the last three years on my old blog. So if you haven't had quite enough reviews of 2012 yet settle down for another one. At the end I'll be doing my usual Hit List and Shit List, with my Top Ten and Bottom Five productions, and I'll decide which is my Show of the Year 2012, joining 2009's Our Class, 2010's Romeo and Juliet, and 2011's London Road. But in the meantime here's some of the hits, misses, and unexpected running themes of the year, and I might chuck in a few non-awards along the way.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Theatre review: The Dance of Death

My final show of 2012, and an alternative take on the idea of festive entertainment - very alternative, as we're off to an isolated Swedish island to spend some time with Strindberg. Titas Halder directs the latest Donmar Trafalgar show, The Dance of Death, for which Richard Kent's design turns Trafalgar Studio 2 into a particularly grim, filthy little shack in a military garrison. It used to be the prison, so the fact that it's been allocated to Edgar (Kevin R. McNally,) an ageing Captain, as living quarters, may offer some hint as to what the rest of the officers think of him. Certainly he doesn't have much good to say about them as they party next door - Edgar and his younger wife Alice (Indira Varma) are the only ones not invited. Almost 25 years into a marriage that doesn't appear to have had a single happy day, Edgar and Alice bicker and hiss at each other, looking forward to the release from each other that their eventual deaths will bring.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Theatre review: Viva Forever!

They've been calling Viva Forever!, the latest jukebox musical to hit the West End, Viva For The Next Couple Of Months, although with the Piccadilly Theatre absolutely heaving tonight maybe it'll do a We Will Rock You and defy the critics. Album Tracks: The Musical is the nickname that came more to mind as I watched this bizarrely misfiring musical based on the music of the Spice Girls. I usually steer clear of jukebox shows but I guess what made me book for this one is that there's something really fun about Spice Girls songs, that made me figure that even if it was a bit of mess it should at least brighten up my evening. So perhaps the most disappointing thing about Jennifer Saunders' clusterfuck of a book is its utter mechanical joylessness. A by-the-numbers X Factor parody jostles with a shameless Mamma Mia ripoff to create a mass of loose ends that doesn't even segue into the songs particularly well.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Theatre review: Mydidae

DryWrite is a company that commissions playwrights to produce work on very specific briefs, and there's nothing dry about their challenge to Jack Thorne, to set a play entirely in a bathroom. Named after a kind of short-lived fly, Mydidae takes place over a day in the life of a couple, Marian (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and David (Keir Charles.) It starts as a fairly light piece that looks at how comfortable the pair are together, their morning peeing, flossing and shaving all done in front of each other, sharing a lot of in-jokes that suggest a couple who've got to know each other really well. But a darker underside becomes apparent - the day ahead is one they're both dreading, and it's not just because of the important business pitch David has to make: This is also the anniversary of an event which Thorne makes the audience aware of with a nice degree of subtlety.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse)

My final Shakespeare trip of a Bard-heavy year takes me back to one of those plays I've never warmed to, Julius Caesar. Back in the summer, Gregory Doran's Africa-set production was probably the best I've seen the play done, so this one at the Donmar Warehouse had a lot to live up to. And Phyllida Lloyd's is another take to go for high-concept casting, this time an all-female version of the story. We still follow the conspiracy of Brutus (Harriet Walter,) Cassius (Jenny Jules) and a select group of Roman senators to assassinate the hugely popular Julius Caesar (Frances Barber) before his increasing political power leads him to tyranny. But we're now in a women's prison, where the inmates have been given permission to stage the play in the recreation room, and some of the cast are taking it all much more seriously than others.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Theatre review: In the Republic of Happiness

Surely one of the most experimental pieces the Royal Court's staged in a long while, Martin Crimp's In the Republic of Happiness starts with what looks like a familiar Christmas scene, but quickly turns into one of the most baffling festive offerings you're likely to see. The play is divided into three distinct sections, each given a very different look in Miriam Buether's great set design (and for a change at the Jerwood Downstairs, the audience actually gets to watch the super-speedy scene changes take place.) First up is the traditional family discord around the Christmas dinner table. But as the sun goes down it turns out Dad (Stuart McQuarrie) has taken all the light bulbs out of their fittings, and the family secrets prove just as murky as the living room as the afternoon wears on.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Theatre review: The Architects

I've never seen anything by Shunt before, but The Architects doesn't make me think I'll be rushing back. Allegedly inspired by the legend of the Minotaur, this is a site-specific show in a vast, freezing former biscuit factory in Bermondsey - there's a reference to the Labyrinth in the tunnels you have to traverse to get to the main playing area, but you're more likely to get lost trying to find the completely un-signposted entrance to the show. Once past these MDF walls you find yourself in the bar of a huge cruise liner, where you wait for the show to start - it's worth noting that nothing happens until 70 minutes after the "doors open" time on your ticket. As it turns out, the bit waiting in the bar is the highlight, as long as you've brought someone to chat to. Eventually a decent band arrive, as do four members of the "Biscuit family," cruise organisers with nonspecific North European accents, who, between blackouts, make announcements about events on the ship. Occasionally there's a video link-up with the same four actors playing the decadently wealthy owners, checking up on how things are going.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Theatre review: The Orphan of Zhao

Next up in the "A World Elsewhere" season is the first Chinese play ever to be staged at the RSC, The Orphan of Zhao. Although its provenance is slightly less straightforward than that - the story has been retold on stage in China for centuries, with the best-known version being Ji Junxiang's 14th century telling, with 17th century amendments by Zang Maoxun. What we have here is a new adaptation by James Fenton, taken from a variety of original Chinese sources (and adding a new ending to tidy up a nagging plot hole.) Gregory Doran directs, making this either his final production as Chief Associate, or his first as Artistic Director, or neither, or both. The publicity has been keen to call the play the "Chinese Hamlet" although the main similarity is in this being a bloody revenge tragedy - The Orphan of Zhao is a much more epically sprawling affair, and at times a gripping one.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Theatre review: Feathers in the Snow

The early part of this year was defined in many ways (by us obsessive theatricals at least) by a surge of Philip Ridley plays, which we christened the unofficial Ridleyfest 2012. So it seems appropriate that he has a second new play premiering as the year ends, and that it should open in the main house of Southwark Playhouse where his plays regularly appear, as the final production in the current venue (Simon Kenny's set and Gary Bowman's lighting making an atmospheric farewell to the railway tunnels.) Ridley's violently poetic plays have a recurring fascination with fairytales, which perhaps goes some way to reconciling his very adult plays with his other career as a children's author. Both of these strings to his bow come together now for Feathers in the Snow, an ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) family show with a scope that spans generations and a story that covers the births and deaths of nations.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Theatre review: The Shawl

The Young Vic's tiny Clare studio seems to be becoming the home for the winners of directing awards: Having already played host to the JMK winner, we now get the Genesis Future Director's Award winner, Ben Kidd. He brings an interesting dynamic to The Shawl, the short 1985 play in which David Mamet returns to his recurring theme of con-artists, this time looking at mediums whose comforting messages from the dead are entirely bogus - or are they? Kidd's production opens with a beautifully spooky touch: Merle Hensel's design sees chairs bolted down in a fairly haphazard-seeming in-the-round configuration, and as the audience take their seats a security camera's live images are shown on a number of TV screens, scattered around the cardboard boxes that line the walls. But when the play starts and Miss A (Denise Gough) enters, with some trepidation, for her first consultation with a psychic, the TV screens show her entering a deserted room, as if the audience are now spirits the cameras can't pick up.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Theatre review: Boy Meets Boy

I did have tonight down as a rare theatre-free evening, but Ian recommended Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street Theatre as a rather mental must-see, and I'm not one for resisting theatrical temptation so off I popped. The musical, with songs by Bill Solly and book by Solly and Donald Ward, was a 1975 off-Broadway hit, but written in the style of a 1930s golden age show with Americans in Europe, mismatched but made-for-each-other couples, a bunch of misunderstandings and a lead who thinks his love interest is two different people. The big conceit of the show though is that this is an alternate 1930s, where homosexuality is not just legal with complete equal marriage rights (giving the revival a bit of topicality as well) but considered so run-of-the-mill as to be completely unworthy of mention.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Theatre review: Privates on Parade

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will probably know not to expect too much in the way of sensible reviewing from my musings on Privates on Parade at the Noël Coward. Any poor unfortunates who've googled their way here in the hope of figuring out whether the show's worth seeing, I hope you enjoy disappointment, because here you go: The reason, of course, is that Privates on Parade is among other things notorious for how literally its title should be taken with regard to male nudity. And once it was announced that Big Favourite Round These Parts Sam Swainsbury would be in the cast, along with the not unwelcome additions of Joseph Timms and Harry Hepple, I basically spent the couple of months leading up to the show like a toddler who'd overdosed on Sunny Delight. Look, I'm just very, very sexually frustrated, OK? So the fact that, although the nudity remains, it's rather more coy than expected about flashing actual front bottoms, was a bit of a disappointment (people who saw previews tell me things were a bit more clearly on display then; maybe the West End audience clutched their pearls a bit too hard and it was toned down?)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Theatre review: Kiss Me Kate

My patience for the books of musicals is less than legendary, but I've mostly learned to deal with their lackadaisical approach to storytelling by just trying to ignore it in the hope that it'll go away. It doesn't always work though, and despite going in quite optimistic after hearing raves from various sources including my sister, my first experience of Cole Porter's classic musical Kiss Me Kate was a frustrating one. Actor/director Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) is staging a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew with himself as Petruchio opposite his ex-wife Lilli Vannessi (Hannah Waddingham) as Katherina. She still holds a torch for him despite her engagement to a general with political aspirations (Mark Heenehan) and when she discovers the flowers she thought were for her were actually meant for the show's Bianca, Lois (Holly Dale Spencer,) her real anger spills over into the show and derails the performance.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Theatre review: Pack

Straight on to the Papatango winner, which this year is Louise Monaghan's Pack. We're in a community centre in Leeds (Olivia Altaras has designed a set that serves both this and Everyday Maps For Everyday Use well) where maths teacher Dianna (Denise Black) evidently doesn't get enough teaching in her day job, so holds a class on bridge for beginners in the evenings. Her students are Deb (Angela Lonsdale,) a brash widow who's gone up in the world since collecting her husband's life insurance; Stephie (Sarah Smart,) her slightly dim-witted friend; and Nasreen (Amita Dhiri,) a doctor Deb seems a bit sniffy towards at first. As we get to know the women in the ensuing weeks of card-playing, their outside lives start to encroach on their new friendships, as a BNP rally approaches and the politics of the women, as well as their husbands', come under the spotlight.

Theatre review: Everyday Maps for Everyday Use

When the Finborough played host to the Papatango playwrighting competition for the first time last year, they went for an ambitious programme of staging, alongside the winner's month-long run, week-long runs of the other three finalists. This year they've reined things in a bit, with a couple of rehearsed readings of finalists, but full productions for the top two plays, running in repertory. First, the runner-up, Tom Morton-Smith's Everyday Maps for Everyday Use.

The soundtrack as the audience enters is a selection of Bowie's more space travel-fixated songs, as the play is set in Woking, where HG Wells had the aliens first invade in The War of the Worlds, and Morton-Smith's characters' lives, ambitions and sexual inclinations are all in some way or other tied up with Mars; the play follows the various ways the six people's lives intertwine.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Theatre review: Boris Godunov

Thanks to the World Shakespeare Festival, 2012 has shown us how other countries interpret his plays, but for the Winter season in the Swan the RSC takes its turn to play host in the foreign exchange, staging three international classics that can be seen as Shakespeare's contemporaries - either in when they were written, or the historical period they deal with. Alexander Pushkin deliberately intended to take inspiration from Shakespeare in the way he put Boris Godunov together, and certain moments do mirror scenes from his plays. Adrian Mitchell's verse translation also occasionally references particular well-known Shakespearean lines. So we open with echoes of Julius Caesar as Boris Godunov (Lloyd Hutchinson) is repeatedly offered the Russian throne by the people, and keeps turning it down. It'll take a month of pleading but Godunov will accept the position of Tsar.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Theatre review: Cinderella (Lyric Hammersmith)

I'm not really much of a pantomime connoisseur, not having grown up in the UK and never having had a reason to get into them since moving here as an adult. Having a December birthday, in the last couple of years I've tended to celebrate it with a trip with friends to the Stag's smutty adult panto, but with that venue closing (although as it turned out its panto will still go ahead; look out for a review in a couple of weeks' time) one of the more traditional, family shows looked like providing an alternative. In the last few years, the Lyric Hammersmith has really made a name for itself with its quality pantos, but there was an extra reason this year's Cinderella became a must-see: Steven Webb has become a fixture of the Christmas show there, and this year he was joined, in her first ever panto role, by musical theatre star (and original West End Kate Monster in Avenue Q) Julie Atherton. Atherton is always worth seeing, let alone teaming her up with Webb - the two are friends, and used to entertain themselves by doing things like this when they shared a flat. In a theatrical style that thrives on improvisation and corpsing, putting the two of them on stage together should be a fun recipe.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Theatre review: Old Money

Hampstead Theatre ends its current main house season of new plays with Sarah Wooley's Old Money, about a 60-something widow's second lease of life. Following the death of her husband, Joyce (Maureen Lipman) gets hold of the house and all the money, and slowly realises she can enjoy it. After making the 30-minute train journey to London, seen all her life as some kind of impossible distance, she gradually gets bolder - going to the opera, chatting to men, and eventually striking up a friendship with stripper Candy (Nadia Clifford.) But back in Surrey, Joyce's family are unable to see that anything's changed: Her elderly mother Pearl (Helen Ryan) has been a controlling presence all her life and expects this to continue. And her daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman,) married to the rarely-employed Graham (Timothy Watson) and pregnant for the third time, sees her mother largely as a childcare opportunity, also good for regular loans when they have trouble paying the mortgage.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Theatre review: Hero

Lightning struck twice with Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss both being discovered while still at school, but the Royal Court's attempts to make it a hat trick with E.V. Crowe haven't, to my eyes, borne fruit. Her schoolgirl debut Kin was underwhelming and I found her latest offering even more problematic: Hero tackles casual homophobia at a primary school by taking us into the flats of two male teachers: Charismatic Danny (Liam Garrigan) lives with his civil partner Joe (Tim Steed,) and they are hoping to adopt. His colleague and neighbour, the much more chaotic Jamie (Daniel Mays) is also an old friend of Joe's, and as such invites himself round a lot more often than Danny would like. At the start of the play his visit is to ask for advice, because the 7-year-olds have started a false rumour that he's gay, and he massively overreacted when he found out.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Theatre review: Stories from an Invisible Town

Hugh Hughes, the mostly-fictional rising Welsh multimedia artist and alter-ego of actor/writer Shôn Dale-Jones, returns to the Pit with his fourth show following a national tour. (Dale-Jones claims to have been surprised after his first show, Floating, at people not realising Hugh wasn't real; but as his cast lists continue to credit the writing and acting to the characters, with the real creatives' names listed as "artistic associates," there's obviously a certain amount of deliberate blurring between him and his creation. It also makes crediting people in reviews tricky, so any crediting that follows is, I think, right, but comes mainly from a fair amount of googling.) This time around, for Stories from an Invisible Town, Hugh has been given siblings, Delyth (Sophie Russell) and Derwyn (Andrew Pembrooke,) who join him on stage for a loosely-structured memory play about their childhoods in Anglesey, and their more fractured relationships as adults.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Theatre review: Once Upon a Mattress

Some likeable, if a bit undercooked, family entertainment at the Union, where Once Upon a Mattress promises to tell the untold story behind the fairytale of the princess and the pea. The inaccurately-named Prince Dauntless (the Tovey-eared Mark Anderson) must marry a true princess, as defined by his mother (Paddy Glynn.) The Queen's definition is incredibly strict and subject to frequent change because, of course, she wants to keep her son to herself, and devises the various tests with her court wizard (David Pendlebury) specifically so that each princess is doomed to fail. And it's not just her gormless son who's affected - the law of the land says nobody else in the kingdom can get married until the prince does, which is particularly tricky for Sir Harry (Stiofán O'Doherty) and lady-in-waiting Larkin (Kimberley Blake) who've just found out their relationship is going to become quite public in about nine months' time. So Sir Harry determines to find the prince a wife, and discovers Winnifred (Jenny O'Leary,) the no-nonsense princess of a swamp.