Sunday, 30 June 2013

Stage-to-screen review: Much Ado About Nothing (Bellwether Pictures)

I rarely venture away from live performance in my reviews on this blog, but if the worlds of Shakespeare and Buffy the Vampire Slayer collide you know I'm going to be interested1. Since Joss Whedon started running TV shows in 1996 he's been fond of using certain actors again and again across Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse and Dr Horrible, while constantly adding new faces to the ensemble. It's also been common knowledge that his casts would spend their days off at Whedon's home where he'd direct them in Shakespeare readings. So when a black and white film version of Much Ado About Nothing suddenly materialised, filmed secretly at Whedon's Hollywood mansion in the break between shooting and post-production of Avengers Assemble, it was both a surprise and somehow completely inevitable. In retrospect, all these years he's been building a repertory company, but for TV and film rather than theatre.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Theatre review: Pigeons

Carrie Cracknell directs the next play in the Royal Court's Weekly Rep season, Suhayla El-Bushra's disturbing, often comic Pigeons, a pretty brutal look at the fragility of relationships in a multicultural society. Played out in more or less reverse order and divided into "Shit That Went Wrong," "Shit That Went Right" and "Shit That Went Wrong (Again)" (the chapter titles spray-painted onto Chloe Lamford's now-familiar packing crate set,) it follows two teenage friends, Ashley (Ryan Sampson) and Amir (Nav Sidhu.) Ashley is the child of a pretty nasty divorce that's seen him and his sister in the custody of different parents, and his friendship with Amir, that dates back to primary school, has provided him with a second family. He often stays over, playing chess with Amir's father Hassan (Paul Bhattacharjee,) flirting with his sister Ameena (Farzana Dua Elahe) and eating his mum's samosas.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Theatre review: Bracken Moor

Alexi Kaye Campbell seems a writer who's not afraid to play around with genre. His latest play, Bracken Moor, premiering at the Tricycle in a co-production with Shared Experience, is a meditation on economics and empathy. Though Campbell's political view is rather heavy-handedly incorporated into the narrative (I tend to agree with him but still found it unsubtle,) the format he's come up with is something I've never seen attempted before: Bracken Moor frames its politics in a ghost story. It's 1936, there's a financial crisis, and Harold Pritchard (Daniel Flynn) owns a lot of land in Yorkshire, including a number of coal mines. Ten years ago his young son Edgar died rather gruesomely, and while Harold has carried grimly on, his wife Elizabeth (Helen Schlesinger) has become a nervous, guilty wreck, staying secluded in their big gloomy house, wishing for death. But a decade on she has finally conceded to a visit from her oldest friend Vanessa (Sarah Woodward) and her husband Geoffrey (Simon Shepherd,) who used to be regular guests.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Theatre review: The Night Alive

Rounding off the latest invasion of Irish plays in London is Conor McPherson's newest work. The Night Alive follows the hit revival of his best-known play The Weir at the Donmar Warehouse, in a production directed by McPherson himself. Part character study, part grubby thriller, The Night Alive takes place in the back room of a house in Dublin, roughly kitted out into a filthy bedsit. He was once the owner of a reasonably successful company but it went down with the rest of the Irish economy, and now Tommy (Ciarán Hinds) scrapes a living as an odd-job man and dodgy wheeler-dealer. Estranged from his wife and children, Tommy lives in this flat in his uncle Maurice's (Jim Norton) house. His friend Doc (Michael McElhatton,) slow-witted but prone to the occasional profundity, sometimes works for him for peanuts, and frequently crashes at the flat when he has nowhere else to stay.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Theatre review: Early Days

To commemorate the 80th birthday of writer David Storey, a rather on-the-nose choice of revival in the Finborough's Sunday-Tuesday slot, as his play Early Days deals with extreme old age. A rather odd little character piece, it looks at the last days of Kitchen (Simon Molloy,) a notable post-War politician whose career never reached the peak it was expected to thanks to, as he frequently laments, "one 25-minute speech and a fifteen-second interview." Now he's seriously ill - perhaps much more so than he even realises, with only a few months left to live - and spends much of his time in the garden of his daughter Mathilda (Abigail Bond) and her wealthy business leader husband Benson (Andrew McDonald.) Here he reflects on past glories, his childhood, and his time with his dead wife, to anyone who'll listen.

Theatre review: Hard Feelings

Unexpected pitfalls of putting on a play: If, as the audience enters, a TV on the set is showing Airplane!, even on mute, the audience may just end up watching and enjoying it, and be a bit resentful of the actors when they turn up and expect us to watch them instead. Well, this audience member might. The film is playing on video, rather a luxury I imagine as the year is 1981 and we are in the Brixton house owned by Isabella Laughland's Viv - or by her parents at any rate, living in America and letting their daughter live there to look after their investment. Viv shares the place with a few of her fellow Oxford graduates, although which of them exactly is meant to be a rent-paying resident at any given time is a bit vague, and subject to frequent change at her whim, or should she choose to take offense at something they say.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Theatre review: Death Tax

The main event in the Royal Court's Open Court season is a six-week repertory, in which a company of actors takes on a different play every week, with just one week's rehearsal and one of performances. I missed the opening offering from the new Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone (word on Twitter suggests I didn't miss much) but the second play in the series is directed by her most trusted lieutenant from the National Theatre of Scotland, John Tiffany. Lucas Hnath's Death Tax revolves around money, and how it seems to corrupt your life whether you've got too much of it or not enough. Set in a Florida nursing home, much of it centres on Tina (Natasha Gordon,) a nurse who finds herself tempted when a wealthy, elderly resident accuses her of trying to speed up her death - and offers her a much-needed incentive not to.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Theatre review: The School for Scandal

I really didn't plan for this to be a year when I went to a lot of new theatres (I have too many to keep up with already) but the newly-opened Park Theatre's main house is hosting a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal directed by Jessica Swale. And as Swale's productions of Restoration comedy are a perennial favourite of mine, with last year's The Busy Body making my annual Top Ten, I couldn't let this slip through the net. The Surface brothers have very different reputations: Joseph (Tom Berish) has carefully cultivated a good name for himself and is well thought-of in society, while his brother Charles (Harry Kerr) is a drunkard, rumoured to be trying to seduce the newly-married Lady Teazle (Kirsty Besterman.) When their wealthy benefactor Sir Oliver (Timothy Speyer) returns from India, he has a suspicion that things are very different beneath the surface, and sets about tricking his nephews into revealing their true selves.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Theatre review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

Ireland can't be such a bad place if Daniel Radcliffe wants to go there. It's the mid-point of Michael Grandage's residency at the Noël Coward Theatre and Radcliffe takes the title role in a revival of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan. Inspired by the filming of documentary Man of Aran on the islands off Ireland in the 1930s, the play's rural community all look for their own ways of escaping the monotony of their isolated lives. Cripple Billy (Radcliffe) is orphaned, severely disabled in one arm and one leg, and has spent most of his life living with his "aunties" Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie.) They run a small local shop with a shortage of eggs and sweets (for reasons that become apparent) but a plentiful supply of tinned peas. Billy's spent his life being mercilessly mocked for his disabilities and, unable to work, likes to get away by sitting in a field staring at cows - until the arrival of a film crew on neighbouring Inishmore gives him a plan to escape to Hollywood.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Theatre review: The Amen Corner

Marianne Jean-Baptiste makes a rare return to the London stage to take the lead in James Baldwin's 1965 play The Amen Corner at the National. She's sister Margaret, pastor at a Harlem church, with very strict rules she expects her flock to live by (despite the fact that one of her parishioners is desperate for work, she refuses to condone him accepting a job driving a whiskey delivery truck, even though he wouldn't be drinking himself.) Her style of preaching seems to have made her popular in the church but the first sign of weakness prompts the animosity of the church elders to come to the surface. Sister Margaret's absence for a week is the first thing to rile them - her trip to visit an affiliate church in Philadelphia makes them wonder why they're paying for it out of church funds. But it's her family life that'll prove the real Achilles heel.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Theatre review: Mission Drift

A play that looks at American capitalism through characters from the nation's early history sounds like a worryingly familiar prospect, but fortunately Mission Drift isn't another Low Road. Unfortunately I'm not quite sure what it is instead. The latest guests in the National Theatre's Shed are US company the TEAM, whose play charts the rise and fall of the American Dream in Las Vegas: Known for its resorts and casinos, it's also a place where everything is transitory. The famous buildings where Elvis and Sinatra played are regularly destroyed in controlled implosions to make way for the next biggest, most expensive hotel, which will in its turn become a relic sooner rather than later; the only reminder of past glories the signs saved and exhibited at a tatty museum called the Neon Boneyard.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Theatre review: Strange Interlude

Strange indeed: I made sure to book a Sunday matinee of Strange Interlude, having heard that Eugene O'Neill's play is meant to run at five hours, and that the National were hoping to bring their production in at under four. As it turns out, Simon Godwin manages to get it down to a manageable but still hefty 3 and a quarter, but this epic family drama still struggles to justify the time it demands of the audience. The story follows Nina (Anne-Marie Duff,) devastated after the death of her fiancé Gordon in the First World War. Not having had the chance to consummate their relationship, her frustration manifests itself as sex with other wounded veterans. This stops when she's persuaded to marry the gormless Sam (Jason Watkins) whom she hopes to learn to love and raise children with. But this too will prove a problem when she discovers something about her new husband even he doesn't know: A family history of insanity that would almost certainly be passed on to his children.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Theatre review: A Mad World My Masters

The title feels very familiar to me but apparently A Mad World My Masters' performance history doesn't quite match its fame: Sean Foley's production for the RSC is a rare chance to see Thomas Middleton's Jacobean sex comedy, a play whose relentless series of single and double entendres makes the Carry On films look chaste and reserved. There's two distinct plots: Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) stands to inherit the fortune of his uncle Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) upon his death. But he's not prepared to wait that long and, with his friends Oboe (Harry McEntire) and Sponger (Ben Deery,) he sets off on a number of ridiculous schemes to part the old fool from his money. Elsewhere, Mr Littledick (Steffan Rhodri) is insanely suspicious of his wife's fidelity - with good reason, as Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) is in lust with Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins,) who's got plots of his own to get her into bed.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth

Tennessee Williams is almost always a hit with me so one of his plays I hadn't seen before, Sweet Bird of Youth, was something to look forward to. The Old Vic's new production is probably guaranteed success anyway as it's coaxed Kim Cattrall back to the London stage to play the drink and drug-addled, faded Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago. When her attempt at a comeback goes badly wrong, she goes into hiding (although her attempt to go incognito does involve her calling herself The Princess Kosmonopolis, so not exactly hiding very well) along the way picking up a young gigolo, Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich.) Chance drives her around the anonymous towns of America, but when Alexandra wakes up in a hotel room in St Cloud she doesn't realise Chance hasn't brought them there by, well, chance: This is his home town, and he's got a plan to get back his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Louise Dylan) and find stardom for both of them.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Theatre review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The official critics have not been invited to this show yet.

With the success of Matilda forgive me if I was a bit cynical at news that a huge musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was in the works - would it be rushed to the stage to catch some of the buzz of the last Roald Dahl adaptation? More encouraging was the creative team: With David Greig providing the book, music from Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can's Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and directed by Sam Mendes, its pedigree definitely made it worth a look. Locked away in his factory, Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) makes the world's best-loved chocolate, but is himself a mysterious figure. Until a promotion puts golden tickets in five chocolate bars, with the lucky winners promised a trip of the factory. Four spoilt children get the trip of a lifetime, while the final ticket goes to dirt-poor Charlie Bucket (Jack Costello, Tom Klenerman, Isaac Rouse or Louis Suc.)

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Theatre review: Rutherford & Son

When Githa Sowerby's Rutherford & Son premiered in 1912 it was an instant hit until it got out that its author was female, at which point it quickly fell out of favour. It's not hard to see why it might cause discomfort in a time when the Suffragettes were in the news, and it might say "son" in the title but it's the daughter - and the daughter-in-law - who ultimately make the biggest impression. John Rutherford (Barrie Rutter) is a domestic tyrant: Having inherited the family business he's turned it into a very successful glassworks through hard work and a ruthless attitude. But this ruthlessness follows him home, where he hopes one of his sons will take over the business and let his name live on after his death. But it's this single-minded determination that they should follow in his footsteps that ends up pushing them away.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare's Globe)

Never let it be said that Dominic Dromgoole doesn't like the jig that ends every performance at Shakespeare's Globe. For his new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream he's not just reserved it for the end but given us one to open the show with as well - in this case it's a dance representation of the battle between Athenians and Amazons that sees Theseus take Hippolyta as his queen. And since we have Michelle Terry as Hippolyta you can be assured the conflict hasn't quite ended there - she may have accepted him but right from the start Terry makes it clear she won't be sitting back and letting him make all the decisions. This prickly brand of affection between her and John Light's Theseus is one the two actors carry over to their other roles as the Fairy King and Queen of the forest, Oberon and Titania - here a very earthy, animalistic pair of deities, the animal heads of the fairies not making it that much of a stretch to see Titania fall for Bottom when he gets one of his own.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Theatre review: Surprise Theatre - Cakes and Finance

"The writers have the keys" says the slogan for the summer season at the Royal Court, where Vicky Featherstone gives herself some lead-in time to her first season by asking several dozen playwrights to programme a festival of new writing. Judging by their first offering, when Featherstone gets the keys back she'll have a lot of cleaning up to do - if this is how masturbatory things are going to be, the cushions are going to get very sticky.

As part of the Open Court festival we have Surprise Theatre, in which a different short piece is performed every Monday and Tuesday night for two performances only (7:30pm and 9pm.) Title, subject matter, writer and cast are all a secret until the moment the curtains that have been installed in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs pull back and the show starts.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Theatre review: Dances of Death

There must be an unwritten rule about Strindberg that says you can only have the same one of his plays over and over, or none at all. Usually it's Miss Julie, but it's less than six months since Donmar Trafalgar gave us The Dance of Death, and now here it is at the Gate. Except it turns out Strindberg wrote two parts to the play, and the second part is rarely performed. Howard Brenton's new version conflates the two parts into a single two-act play, hence the title change to Dances of Death. Set on a Swedish island that's used in its entirety as a military base, it focuses on the toxic 30-year marriage of elderly army captain Edgar (Michael Pennington) and his wife Alice (Linda Marlowe.) What seems at first to be affection disguised as a string of insults turns out to have a very real hatred underneath it - and yet the couple are too committed to causing each other misery ever to try and escape.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Theatre review: Avenue Q

I generally appreciate even the darker areas theatre takes me to, but it can be nice to have some pure fun on the horizon. And after a straight run of shows about Islamophobia, mistreated immigrants, civil war, the potential breakup of the nation, capital punishment, disturbed teenagers, nervous breakdowns and rape, you can bet I was looking forward to the return of my all-time favourite musical to the London stage: With a book by Jeff Whitty and songs by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q is the adult Sesame Street whose fans just wouldn't let it disappear from the West End, where it ran for four-and-a-half years at three different theatres (during which time I fitted in eleven trips) before finally packing its bags in 2010. Just two-and-a-half years years later and it's back, getting snapped up by Upstairs at the Gatehouse the second the fringe rights became available.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Theatre review: Race

At some point David Mamet must have decided that dealing with a single inflammatory topic in 85 minutes wasn't enough for him, hence Race which covers both rape and racial politics in a legal drama that never actually sets foot in a courtroom. Following an ongoing sexual relationship with a much younger black woman, white millionaire Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) has been accused by her of rape. Having left his original lawyer, Strickland turns up at the offices of Jack Lawson (Jasper Britton) asking him to take on his case - the fact that Lawson's business partner Henry Brown (Clarke Peters) is black will, he hopes, stand in his favour with the jury. The lawyers aren't keen to take him on but an error by Lawson's protégée Susan (Nina Toussaint-White, who regenerated into River Song on Doctor Who) sees them legally bound to represent him. The race is now on to second-guess how the case's racial makeup will affect the jury, and find the one piece of evidence so compelling it'll override it.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Theatre review: Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall

2013 is turning out to be a year when size matters, or at least length does: If it's not a super-long running time it's a mouthful of a title, like Brad Birch's two-hander Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall, now playing Upstairs at Soho Theatre. A nameless couple in their late twenties (Joe Dempsie and Lara Rossi) are, by all the usual criteria, successful: A good-looking pair very much in love, they share a nice flat paid for by decent jobs. But it's these jobs that cause the first cracks: Their 9-5 lives are dull, sometimes degrading and built around trying to please bosses they hate, leaving them with little time together at the end of the day, which they spend in front of the TV. Worse, it's becoming apparent that these soul-sapping jobs aren't even enough to pay all the bills.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Theatre review: Moth

Only a couple of years on from getting a new building the Bush has already started experimenting with a second auditorium. They've staged a couple of shows there before but the first one I've had the chance to get to is Declan Greene's Moth, a transfer from the HighTide Festival. The Attic turns out to be a tiny space, low-ceilinged, as hot as the Finborough used to be pre air-con and, in this in-the-round arrangement, seating what can't have been much more than 40 people. At least this intimate, claustrophobic setup is apt for the play, which takes us into the world of a very disturbed teenager. Sebastian (Jordan Mifsúd) is a grubby, bullied schoolboy with only one friend - emo girl Claryssa (Stacey Gregg.) When even her friendship seems in question, Sebastian looks to a higher power and a more apocalyptic narrative for his life.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Theatre review: Trash Cuisine

Belarus is the only remaining European dictatorship, and the only European country to still have the death penalty. Belarus Free Theatre is a company performing in exile (an international ensemble, it features at least one French cast member and one American) and in their new show they aim to shine a light on the barbaric nature of modern-day torture and executions, through the medium of wasting lots of food. Trash Cuisine introduces us to the "Capital Punishment Café," where we hear the stories of various executions and tortures from the last half-century throughout the world, to the accompaniment of dance/movement, music and a lot of live onstage cookery. Real meat is chopped up and fried while we hear horrific stories of human mutilations, and human rights abuses from Belarus itself to the massacres in Rwanda, Northern Ireland in the 1970s and the casual approach to capital punishment in those US States that still practice it.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Theatre review: The Blood is Strong

Continuing its work representing all four nations of the United Kingdom, the Finborough's latest show looks at the looming possibility of one of those nations getting lopped off the map. Set in 2011, in the runup to Scottish Parliamentary elections that would go well for the Scottish National Party and open the door to the Independence referendum, David Hutchison's The Blood is Strong compares England and Scotland to a long-standing music hall partnership - they don't always get on, but they've been important to each other for too long to throw it away. Alec (Martin Buchan) is a veteran of the Scottish Music Hall, a singer of romanticised ballads still loved by many but unpopular with the nationalists who see this musical tradition as peddling a Disneyfied, saccharine version of their country. Married to the English Maisie (Janet Amsden,) Alex is quietly pro-Union, but his fiercely intelligent daughter feels differently.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Theatre review: Lear (Lazarus/Greenwich Theatre)

Following their creative take on Dido, Queen of Carthage I decided to catch Lazarus' companion show in the final performance of their Greenwich rep season. This is Shakespeare's Lear - the character's title dropped because here Lear is a woman. Jennifer Shakesby is the monarch who divides her kingdom between her daughters, only to find that their gratitude isn't quite what she expected, and once you've given away all your power the respect suddenly disappears as well. Ricky Dukes' production uses a heavily edited version of the text - the Fool has been excised completely - but has changed few of the gender pronouns: Lear is referred to as "she" and "mother," but her title remains "King" and she is still addressed as "sir." Of course post-Battlestar Galactica that's a perfectly acceptable form of address.

Theatre review: Juana in a Million

After a few months in limbo, Southwark Playhouse opens temporary premises in Elephant & Castle, but I can't check out their new main house just yet: Injury saw the entire run of the opening show cancelled, which I'm sure they're not viewing as a bad omen of any kind. I'm sure things'll go better for them when they stage a musical Titanic later this summer, what could possibly go wrong?

So my first visit takes me to the smaller studio they're calling The Little (the other one's The Large - perhaps when they return to London Bridge they can open The Cannon and The Ball?) for Vicky Araico Casas and Nir Paldi's tale of South American illegal immigrants finding a much more brutal life in London than they'd expected, Juana in a Million.