Monday, 30 September 2013

Theatre review: In the Jungle of Cities

Brecht scholars apparently tend to avoid discussing his early play In the Jungle of Cities. It could be because it's so far removed from the rest of the playwright's work, although it's just as likely to be because, if they mentioned it, they might be expected to understand it. Notionally set in Chicago, it follows a surreal and nonsensical battle of wills between two men. Shlink (Jeffery Kissoon) is a wealthy lumber yard owner. Looking for a worthy opponent, he strikes on George Garga (Joseph Arkley,) the dirt-poor employee of a lending library. Arriving at George's place of work with his goons, Shlink challenges him to a battle of their spirits, and seems to break the poorer man's and get him entangled in the game, to take the first round. His next move is a surprising one though: He gives Garga all his property and volunteers to be his slave.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Theatre review: The Lyons

If there's an insatiable appetite for drama about dysfunctional families, The Lyons is here to feed it. Nicky Silver's off-Broadway hit comes to the Menier complete with original director Mark Brokaw, who has a new British cast to play the well-off Manhattan Jewish family. The scene is a private hospital room where Ben (Nicholas Day) has terminal cancer. He and wife Rita (Isla Blair) have known about his illness for months, but have chosen to wait until he has a matter of days left to live before springing the news on their children Lisa (Charlotte Randle) and Curtis (Tom Ellis.) Thrown into this small room together the family waste no time tearing into each other about their many long-standing grievances and disappointments. And once Ben has died we get to see what's left of the children he and Rita raised.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Theatre review: The Herd

After Cush Jumbo, Rory Kinnear is the latest actor to make a playwrighting debut at the Bush. It's Andy's 21st birthday; severely mentally and physically disabled, he lives in a care home but as it's a special occasion his carer will be bringing him to his mother's house for a small party. Carol (Amanda Root) is a bag of nerves as she waits for her son to arrive, constantly on the phone to the carer or the care home manager she can't stand. When her daughter Claire (Louise Brealey) arrives she's also pretty distracted, as she'll be bringing boyfriend Mark (Adrian Bower) along to meet her family for the first time. Carol's parents are the only other expected guests at the party, but it wouldn't be a drama without an uninvited one, and that's Claire and Andy's estranged father Ian (Adrian Rawlins,) hoping to be allowed to see his son after five years' absence.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Non-review: Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic)

The "nothing" in Much Ado About Nothing has been ascribed many punning meanings. It was Elizabethan slang for "vagina," which fits in with the sexual deceit at the heart of the plot. Less interesting people insist it's in fact a pun on "noting," meaning gossip. Mark Rylance's production at the Old Vic has found a whole new relevance to "nothing," as the answer to the question "how much of the script will James Earl Jones have memorised by the first preview?" A few weeks on and Jones has at least managed to keep the blank pauses to a minimum, but frankly knowing what the words are seems irrelevant in a production when they're often inaudible, and when they can be heard they're being thrown away. Regular readers of this blog will both know a "not-review" is when I want to comment on a show but feel something makes me unqualified to call it a review. Very rarely, that something is me leaving at the interval.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Theatre review: King Lear (Belarus Free Theatre / Globe to Globe)

I won't be in the least bit surprised if international productions become a regular feature at Shakespeare's Globe for years to come. For now though this is the last of them, King Lear from Belarus Free Theatre concluding the quartet of encore performances from last year's Globe to Globe festival. The programme reminds us that this is a company working partly in exile from Europe's last remaining dictatorship, so a play that opens with a controversial reallocation of power seems a natural fit. Lear in Vladimir Shcherban's production isn't an old man; the casting of Aleh Sidorchyk is meant to identify him with a younger military dictator; he's clearly not past the age of being able to govern so perhaps his abdication in favour of his daughters is a political move, intended to be symbolic but ending up horribly literal. Having given all his powers to the two daughters who flattered him the most, Lear finds himself cast out into the elements when they show their true colours.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Theatre review: Macbeth (Shakespeare's Globe)

Like many an actor, Eve Best wants to branch out into directing, and following her Beatrice at Shakespeare's Globe she'd had discussions about making that the venue for her directing debut. Apparently she'd imagined being given one of the comedies so when Dominic Dromgoole offered her Macbeth it was a surprise, but one she's embraced - although her interest in staging something lighter in the space is always apparent. It's only three years since the Globe staged Macbeth, in Lucy Bailey's production that embraced the play's dark magic to the point of revealing it as a Faustian story, complete with design straight out of Dante's Inferno. With that in recent memory it's wise of Best to go in a different direction, and she certainly does, making this one of the lightest takes on the play you're likely to see in a long while, embracing the surprisingly frequent opportunities for comedy, and she succeeds just about as well as it's possible to with this interpretation - though it's one with inherent problems.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Theatre review: Hysteria

Before he goes to Stratford-upon-Avon next year to take up his new position as First Lady of the RSC, Sir Antony Sher is playing Terry Johnson's version of Sigmund Freud at Hampstead. The writer also directs this revival of Hysteria which sees the psychiatrist shortly before his death, living in a large Swiss Cottage house having fled the Nazis. It's 5am when Freud is disturbed in his study by Jessica (Lydia Wilson,) an apparently suicidal young woman fixated on one particular case history the psychiatrist had documented, and which had helped him formulate his theses. She is still around, hiding in the bathroom, the next day when two more visitors are entertained: Freud's physician and friend Dr Yahuda (David Horovitch) and the artist Salvador Dalí (Adrian Schiller,) there to pay tribute to the man he credits with inspiring the surrealist movement, and perhaps even gain his approval.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Theatre review: Farragut North

There's a bit of a crush to get into Southwark Playhouse's Large space at the moment - "no pushing!" barked a woman at me, as she pushed me up against the door-frame so she could get first dibs on the front row. Maybe this excitement is due to the presence of Max Irons, who's pretty much sexually irresistible (at least that's what his dad thinks.) Or maybe everyone just wanted to get up close to Barry off of Eastenders. Irons plays Steve, a 25-year-old who's already press officer for a US Presidential candidate. Farragut North takes place in the runup to the crucial Iowa primaries and the signs are good that Steve's candidate will win the vote to become the Democrats' candidate. But this confidence is shaken with a few days to go when Steve gets a call from a rival campaign's manager (Andrew Whipp) who suggests the polls might not tell the whole story, and it could be time to jump ship.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Theatre review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Michael Grandage Company at the Noël Coward Theatre)

One of the big theatrical events of 2013, the Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward is already nearing its end with the first of the two Shakespeare plays that conclude the residency.

The star casting for A Midsummer Night's Dream sees Sheridan Smith as Titania and David Walliams as Bottom, but the cast also includes a nice bit of continuity with the rest of the season so far, with one cast member returning from each of the previous productions: From The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pádraic Delaney plays Oberon; from Peter and Alice, Stefano Braschi plays Demetrius; and from Privates on Parade, Sam Swainsbury plays Lysander.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Theatre review: Barking in Essex

How funny is the idea of Sheila Hancock saying "cunt?" Barking in Essex is confident that it will stay funny for a little over two hours. Spoiler alert: It doesn't. It's not often a new play opens directly in the West End, and this one is new in the sense of "new to the stage" as opposed to "newly written" - unless Clive Exton was such a workaholic that his death six years ago didn't slow him down. An opening scene that revolves around jokes about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and the long-since cancelled Weakest Link is a reminder that there wasn't a huge rush to bring this one to the stage. Was it a lost gem just waiting for the right cast to become available? Or was it gathering dust until the popularity of The Only Way Is Essex made producers sniff cash in anything with the county's name in the title? Well, I haven't exactly been subtle in my introduction, clearly it's going to be the latter.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Non-review: American Lulu

I would have probably not classified this as a review anyway, as I know far too little about opera to pass comment on it on my very rare ventures. But it's even more so the case for American Lulu, Olga Neuwirth's adaptation of Alban Berg's opera, itself based on Frank Wedekind's plays. The trouble is I don't know the latter, so I didn't have foreknowledge of the story, and I'm not much better informed of it now. It's about a... prostitute? Maybe? I can't say I noticed her specifically having sex for money, but she does seem to have a pimp, so maybe she's a prostitute. Or she could have been the Duchess of Argyle. In any case lots of men fancy her, and continue to pursue her despite the fact that most of them seem to end up dead. She also confesses to poisoning someone's mother, which was the first I knew that he had a mother, let alone that she'd been poisoned. On reflection, I'm fairly sure she isn't the Duchess of Argyle.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Theatre review: The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas

Following what amounted to a teaser season, Vicky Featherstone officially takes over at the Royal Court by bringing Dennis Kelly's work to the main stage for the first time. Kelly might have brought us Matilda, Orphans and Pulling but he's also the man responsible for causing the gods to weep, so this really could have gone either way. The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas follows the mild-mannered title character (Tom Brooke) through a life of doing the right thing, always asking if this is a sign of goodness or cowardice. This question is answered when Gorge meets the fearsome A (Pippa Haywood,) a ruthless business leader who sees in him the potential to join her amoral elite. Redefining his life according to three golden rules of lying and single-mindedness, Gorge soon outshines his mentor to become an über-capitalist monster, willing to skilfully manipulate everyone who comes near him.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Theatre review: Summer Day's Dream

We open on a rustic scene, two old men who look like they work with their hands dozing in a farmhouse. What looks like a Victorian rural setup isn't the past though but the future - or at least the future from the perspective of 1949, when Summer Day's Dream premiered. J.B. Priestley's play takes place in the post-apocalyptic England of 1975, Britain having been worst affected by the Third World War, which ended with an atomic bomb sending the island back to pre-industrial times. A couple of decades on and the country has found a new life as an agricultural society with a mostly barter-based economy. In the old order Stephen Dawlish (Kevin Colson) was a wealthy factory-owner, but now the 80-year-old's country mansion is a farmhouse, and he and his family happily work the land, exchange goods for what they need, and entertain themselves in the evening with music, poetry and amateur dramatics.

Theatre review: Fishskin Trousers

Things are looking pretty back-to-basics at the Finborough, with a black box stage and three almost-motionless actors for Elizabeth Kuti's take on rural mythology, Fishskin Trousers. The poster design for this premiere production evokes the Green Man of many old English myths, but this would probably be more of a bluey-green man, as he comes not from the forests but the sea. The location is the Suffolk fishing village of Orford, but the time varies: We meet Mab (Jessica Carroll) in 1173, a time when any kind of unusual behaviour could see her branded a witch. And Mab's behaviour towards the village's newest resident certainly differs from everyone else's: The fishing nets have dragged up a web-footed man, The Wild Man of Orford, who seems unable to speak, and whom the villagers have dubbed a merman and tied up in the church. Mab, though, wants to befriend the creature and perhaps even set him free.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Re-review: Othello: The Remix (Q Brothers / Chicago Shakespeare Theater / Unicorn Theatre)

When a handful of 2012's Globe to Globe shows were announced as returning this year I did wonder if the reason the Q Brothers' Othello: The Remix wasn't among them was that it had a longer run in mind somewhere else. When I saw it last year it made it onto my top ten shows of 2012, and I know many people considered it a highlight of the season. True enough, it's back in London for a longer run, this time a little further down the river. Perhaps with a view to inspiring young audiences to seek out Shakespeare in the original text, its new home is the Unicorn, a venue dedicated to children's theatre; the show's occasional bit of swearing hasn't been modified though, the only concession being an "over-13s" warning. I don't think there could ever be a better stage for this than the Globe, whose very incongruousness for a hip-hop show added to the party atmosphere, but the Weston turns out to have a large stage and good sightlines, and offer the odd opportunity for the cast to run around the audience.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Theatre review: Blue Stockings

An accomplished director, Jessica Swale's clearly been learning a thing or two in the rehearsal room about what makes plays tick, because her debut as a playwright is an assured one. Having worked at Shakespeare's Globe before, this becomes the venue for the premiere of Blue Stockings, and having championed the work of trailblazing women in her choice of plays to direct, she finds another group of them in Cambridge at the end of the 19th century. For a few decades, women had been allowed to study there at colleges like Girton, but any achievements they made had to go unrecognised: At the time we join the bluestockings (Swale takes her play's title from the sneery nicknmae given to female students) they are trying to secure a historic vote that would allow them to graduate.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 1

One bit of mystery Show 2 didn't keep that Show 1 remedies is to keep the safety curtain down as the audience enters. Yes, it's back to the Lyric Hammersmith for Secret Theatre's second show which, as they're numbered by the first preview rather than when they open, is actually called Show 1. As before, only read further if you want to know the play's identity.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Theatre review: The Secret Agent

Another of those weeks that unintentionally ends up with a theme, this one features a whole batch of shows with "Secret" in the title. Next up for me is The Secret Agent, theatre O's painfully uninspired take on Joseph Conrad's novel of anarchy and bungled terrorism. Having been on the payroll of the Russian Embassy for some years, Verloc (George Potts) is horrified to find himself actually called on to do something for it, namely blow up Greenwich Observatory in an attack on time itself. Soon the remains of a man are found scattered around Greenwich Park following a malfunction with the bomb, but are they Verloc's or did he persuade someone else to do his dirty work for him? With their faces painted in white clown makeup, the cast open the show in tableau before exploding out in slow motion. Yes, it's that kind of show.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 2

Once again, the Lyric Hammersmith is closed for several months to allow building of their new educational annexe. But although the front-of-house is a construction site, the auditorium itself is not being touched, so this time around Sean Holmes has come up with a new plan to keep things going: A young ensemble of 20-something actors will be resident for a year alongside other creatives, who will build up a repertory season.

As an additional twist, the shows are being billed as Secret Theatre, and initially sold to audiences who have no idea what show they've booked to see. (I don't know, realistically, how long they expect the secret to be kept, and if they intend to extend the runs they'll have to relax the secrecy sooner or later, most people won't want to leave their evening's entertainment entirely to chance.) In the spirit of the thing, I won't be revealing the titles of the show on the front page of my blog (you might want to avoid looking at the labels as well) for the sake of anyone who wants to play along (and who wasn't spoiled by HIGHLY PROFESSIONAL theatre reviewers tweeting the title in the interval so they can say they got the exclusive, like one of those people who comments "FIRST!" after an online article.) For those who want to know what they're booking for, I'll review after the cut. The first two shows are now running in rep; tonight I caught Show 2.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Theatre review: Fleabag

Fleabag needs a job, but the interview gets off to a bad start when she accidentally flashes her bra at her prospective boss - the fact that he's just been done for sexual harassment doesn't make him any less on edge. Phoebe Waller-Bridge performs her self-penned monologue Fleabag which, framed by the disastrous job interview, takes us back over how the 26-year-old woman ended up quite so chaotic. Following her best friend's death, Fleabag struggles to keep open the guinea pig-themed café they ran together. Her on-off boyfriend also walks out on her, possibly for good this time, and her first reaction is to start playing the field again as soon as possible. Waller-Bridge's hilarious play is an hour's journey through the world of a woman who approaches life and sexuality in ways we stereotypically expect of men.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Theatre review: Candide

Ending this year's RSC summer season is the culmination of Mark Ravenhill's two-year residency in Stratford-upon-Avon, his response to Voltaire's Candide. Not an adaptation - in fact the production seems to presuppose a certain amount of familiarity with the original, as evidenced by a letter sent out a few months ago suggesting audiences might want to read or re-read the book before coming. Perhaps cottoning on to the fact that people don't usually expect to do homework before seeing a show, Ravenhill has also provided a bite-sized retelling of the story on Twitter1 while the RSC website gives a graphic novel summary. The story itself is of a man taught to be optimistic in the face of disaster, who has this philosophy tested when he's kicked out of the castle he grew up in, loses his beloved, gets caught up in numerous wars and spends a life surrounded by death, pain and unfairness.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Theatre review: A Boy and His Soul

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: A Boy and His Soul has its press night on Monday.

Kicking off Indhu Rubasingham's second year in charge of the Tricycle (and the first with the promised reserved seating) is a US import, Colman Domingo performing his own monologue, A Boy and His Soul. Clearing out his parents' old West Philadelphia house before they sell it, JJ (Domingo) finds their old vinyl collection of 1970s soul music, and is transported back to his childhood. He paints a picture of his family soundtracked by Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass and Earth, Wind And Fire, and revisits the adult messages both in the music and the life around him, that seemed innocent to his child's eyes. Following himself to university and beyond, the music continues to provide a way for his family to interpret the world, and ends up defining the way they react to him coming out as gay. Ultimately as his mother and stepfather get old and ill, the soul records become what connects JJ to his memories of them.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Theatre review: Edward II

Some shows generate a Marmite buzz right from the first preview, and that was definitely the case with the National's new Edward II, right up to the official reviews, which ran the gamut from one star to five. Described as "rarely-performed," I've actually seen Marlowe's play twice before, albeit in zero-budget fringe productions, and I've found it to be the strongest of his plays that I've seen. So I didn't see playing it on the National's biggest stage as a particularly big risk, and surely whatever you think of this production the play itself comes out of it very well. Having been a "rising" stage name for ages, John Heffernan finally gets top billing as Edward, the newly-crowned king whose first act is to recall from exile his lover Gaveston. Hated by the court, and distracting the king from the small matter of war with Scotland, Gaveston's presence inspires the barons into all-out rebellion against Edward.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Theatre review: Grounded

A female fighter pilot flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan is an interesting subject matter in itself, but it's just the starting point for George Brant's intense monologue Grounded. The Pilot (Lucy Ellinson) is at the top of her game, and in attitude as well as skill she's one of the guys. Back in the US on leave, she finally meets a man who's not intimidated by what she does, and their love story leads to marriage and pregnancy. But the latter isn't compatible with flying jets in a war, and when she returns from maternity leave the Pilot ends up doing the same job in a very different way: Her new plane is a remote-controlled drone, and while it surveys Afghanistan she's in a different desert, doing 12-hour shifts in a trailer outside Las Vegas, and at the end of the day she can go home to her family.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Theatre review: The Bunker: Morgana & Agamemnon

Edinburgh shows are wasting no time in coming down to London this year, and first up we have a double bill from writer Jamie Wilkes, who transposes stories from mythology to the trenches of the First World War in The Bunker. Morgana and Agamemnon are the stories being paired at Southwark Playhouse (at the Festival they played in rep with a third piece riffing on Macbeth.) Director Jethro Compton has set the plays in a claustrophobic design that sees the Little Theatre transformed, and the audience squeezed on benches around the same bunker as the characters. In Morgana a group of 13 public schoolboys who nicknamed themselves after King Arthur and his knights all volunteered for the War together. A couple of years in and only Arthur (Dan Wood,) Lancelot (Sam Donnelly) and Gawain (James Marlowe) remain, still warning each other to watch out for the machinations of Morgana despite the presence of a much more tangible enemy.