Thursday, 31 October 2013

Theatre review: The Scottsboro Boys

One of the last Kander and Ebb musicals gets its UK premiere at the Young Vic, with Broadway legend Susan Stroman reprising her role as director and choreographer (and bringing some of the original cast with her.) The people behind a much-loved musical charting the rise of the Nazis aren't afraid of a difficult subject and so The Scottsboro Boys unearths an unpleasant chapter in America's checkered civil rights history. Nine young black men passing through Scottsboro, Alabama on the train, end up spending much of the 1930s behind bars when, seemingly out of nowhere, they find themselves accused of the rape of two white women. Pressure from the North and funds from the Communist party result in countless retrials but the total lack of evidence, and even one of their accusers confessing that her testimony was made up, don't stop jury after jury finding them guilty.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Theatre review: Home

Last year Amelia Sears revived the explosive Brimstone and Treacle at the Arcola's Studio 2 and now she returns there (although the venue itself has dropped down a level to the basement since she was last there) for something much more contemplative, David Storey's gently absurdist Home. It's some period after the Second World war, and two elderly men meet in a garden. Harry (Jack Shepherd) and Jack (Paul Copley) peruse the newspaper, reminisce about their lives and discuss great figures from British history to while away an autumn morning. They later meet combative Marjorie (Tessa Peake-Jones) and her friend Kathleen (Linda Broughton,) who can find a smutty double entendre in anything. As they think about going off to lunch, they start to drop hints about exactly what kind of place this peaceful garden is in the middle of: They're not quite free to come and go as they please, there's a lot of doctors around, and Kathleen isn't allowed a belt or shoelaces. The arrival of Joseph Arkley's Alfred, a clearly disturbed young man who believes himself to be a wrestler and keeps stealing the garden furniture only goes to confirm what kind of environment we're in.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Theatre review: Raving

Actor Simon Paisley Day turns playwright with a familiar comic setup: Three couples go on what is meant to be a relaxing weekend together, but end up in one catastrophe after another, their friendships, and sometimes their relationships, tested. Ross (Robert Webb) is a PR man whose orange wife Rosy (Sarah Hadland) takes him at his word that he's blameless on the various occasions she's caught him with a half-naked au pair. They've rented a Welsh cottage and invited their friends Briony (Tamzin Outhwaite) and Keith (Barnaby Kay) to spend the weekend with them, in the hope that it'll help Briony, a fretful mother, relax. But her chances of calming down aren't helped when she realises that the braying Serena (Issy van Randwyck) and Charles (Nicholas Rowe) have also been invited, and when the latter couple's sexually-forward teenage niece crashes the party as well, the results range from awkward revelations to slapstick violence in Raving.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 3

I've had a numerically-themed week at the theatre, with 1984 on Thursday, Two on Friday and Show 3 tonight. But I'm about to spoil the pattern because, as with all the Secret Theatre shows, I'll be ditching the code number after the text break and calling the show by its real title. So if you're planning to see it yourself and want it to stay a secret, this is as far as you should read.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Theatre review: Two

The title of Jim Cartwright's Two refers to the number of people in the cast, one man and one woman playing, between them, everyone who goes into a small local pub in the course of an evening. So the fact that the new production at Southwark Playhouse features four people on stage may seem paradoxical. But this is the latest show from Deafinitely Theatre, the deaf and hearing-impaired company that performs in both English and British Sign Language, and hopes to appeal to both a deaf and hearing audience. So Andrew Muir's production gives Cartwright's play a new conceit: Matthew Gurney and Paula Garfield play the landlord and landlady, Sophie Stone and Jim Fish all the customers. The former pair communicate entirely in BSL, with the latter speaking an English translation. And for the scenes with the customers, the situation is reversed.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Theatre review: 1984

Headlong's latest tour, and the last to be programmed by Rupert Goold, sees Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan attempt to bring George Orwell's 1984 to the stage. The most famous dystopian novel and one whose key phrases have entered the language (and inspired a couple of TV shows that were probably not... quite what Orwell had in mind,) it creates a very specific alternate universe that might have been hard to bring to life. The way they've done it is not to try and expand out into Big Brother's world, but to focus right into the mind of Winston Smith, to the point that what's real and what's in his head blurs - just as his eventual torturers want, of course. In a world where the Government controls everything people say and tries to control what they think too, Winston (Mark Arends) has rebellious thoughts. When he meets Julia (Hara Yannas) and falls in love, his thoughts spill out into action, but Big Brother is always watching.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Theatre review: Perle

Papa-papa-papa-papa, papapa, papa-papa-papa-papa... pa! OK, so this Pearl doesn't actually come with a Dean, but it does come with one of those people I'd never heard of a year ago only for them to become suddenly prolific. Thomas Eccleshare's talents include acting, writing and looking like a toothy Ben Affleck, and he does all three in solo show Perle, loosely based on one of the oldest extant poems in the English language. The publicity rather bravely/foolishly uses the word "mime," and those potential audience members not scared away screaming by this prospect will indeed see Eccleshare spend an almost-silent hour on stage. But instead of an invisible box for him to get stuck in he has a real one, in the form of an old-fashioned large-screen television centre stage, complete with VCR underneath it and piles of VHS tapes scattered around the floor.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Theatre review: Scenes From a Marriage

A delayed trip for me to Scenes From a Marriage at the St James Theatre, as I'd booked to see a show early in the run but Mark Bazeley's illness resulted in not just that night but a whole week's worth of performances being cancelled. Happily Bazeley is looking more than healthy again now as he and Olivia Williams play Ingmar Bergman's warring couple, in an adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Trevor Nunn. Johan and Marianne are a happily married couple, so much so that we meet them giving an interview for a magazine article about successful marriage. Their confidence in the effortlessness of their relationship is misplaced, as becomes apparent over the next ten years while we follow them through a surprise pregnancy and abortion, divorce and, eventually, what kind of relationship is left for people who once seemed inseparable but proved better apart.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Theatre review: Beats

In keeping with Soho Theatre's policy of scheduling as many shows at the same time as physically possible, Kieran Hurley's Beats has an off-putting start time of 9pm. The short run time means that in practice this would have seen me home earlier than some shows this week but still, a Saturday matinee seemed more appealing. At least the start time seems on-theme with the play itself, a monologue about rave culture, and particularly how it was affected by the 1994 Criminal Justice Act introduced by John Major's government, which gave police the power to break up any public gathering where people met and played "amplified music characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats" - effectively criminalising Techno.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (Hiraeth / Arcola)

Obscure Shakespeares are like buses, you wait ages for one and then two come at once. From my first trip to a Shakespeare play in 1989 it took me 24 years to add Titus Andronicus to my collection, but only three months after that the second production comes along. The best thing is, in dealing with a notoriously problematic play two different directors have used completely different approaches to its tonal difficulties. Titus Andronicus is effectively Elizabethan torture porn - with non-stop bloodshed and sexual violence, a self-inflicted amputation straight out of Saw, and a notorious LOLcannibalism! finale, its horror can tip over into unintentional comedy. One way to solve this is to embrace the play's extremes like Michael Fentiman did in Stratford this summer. But another approach is to couch the horror in something we still find genuinely disturbing, and that's Zoé Ford's take at the Arcola.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Theatre review: From Here To Eternity

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Tim Rice says he doesn't believe in long preview periods, but his producers do so the official reviewers are being kept at bay until next week.

Although based on a novel by James (not Earl) Jones, the film of From Here To Eternity is so well-known it probably qualifies Tim Rice's new musical as the latest in the movie-to-musical trend. Rice has teamed up with composer Stuart Brayson to tell the story of US soldiers stationed in Hawaii in late 1941, knowing that they're bound to be joining World War II sooner or later but not realising the incident that draws America in will come to them directly. In the meantime they're in a limbo state with little to occupy their time. Newcomer Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Robert Lonsdale) is a boxer who no longer boxes, a bugler who no longer blows the bugle, and uninterested in casual sex, which marks him out as different to the other soldiers. He falls in love with Lorene (Siubhan Harrison,) a prostitute who's also uninterested in casual sex, which marks her out out as a woman who makes poor career choices.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Theatre review: The Love Girl & the Innocent

Don't put your daughter on the stage Mrs. Worthington - at least not the Large stage at Southwark Playhouse, it's not a safe place for actresses. First its debut production got cancelled when its leading lady was injured, now Kathryn Prescott has had to drop out of one of the title roles of The Love Girl & the Innocent due to illness, to be replaced at short notice by Rebecca Oldfield. The Innocent of the title meanwhile is Nemov (Cian Barry,) a Russian soldier newly arrived in a gulag and immediately given a position of responsibility over his work group. It's 1945 and, coming straight from the front, Nemov naïvely believes life in the prison camp will at least adhere to its own rules. He's in for a rude awakening, but finds a kind of freedom in being demoted to the dreaded "general work" and connecting with Oldfield's Lyuba.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Theatre review: The Events

David Greig's The Events features just two actors but the stage of the Maria is pretty full as the play calls for a choir - Ramin Gray's production brings in a different community choir every night, tonight the Morris Folk Choir from Islington. They provide, of course, a musical backing as well as reading in additional lines on occasion but their presence takes on a greater significance as the story unfolds. Claire (Neve McIntosh) is a lesbian vicar running a multicultural choir, and as such might as well be the poster girl for everything the far right hates - indeed an extremist party once listed the choir as one of the things that's wrong with Britain on its website. But for The Boy (Rudi Dharmalingam) hating them from afar wasn't enough, and it quickly becomes apparent that Claire is the survivor of his act of violence.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Theatre review: The World of Extreme Happiness

Given its ever-increasing position on the world stage, it's not surprising if China has been a popular theme on the London stage lately. An American play getting its UK debut at The Shed, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's The World of Extreme Happiness looks at life for workers in the factories that make over 75% of the world's consumables, but also reveals a two-tier class system that's not so familiar in the West. The distinction is between those born in the city and those still known as peasants, from the country. Sunny (Katie Leung) is a country girl who's been denied an education by her father, as it's too expensive to be wasted on a girl. She moves to a city where she cleans toilets in a toy factory and, spurred on by a culture of self-help slogans, is determined to better herself - so much so that the factory owners see her as the perfect spokesperson for how far their peasant workers progress.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Theatre review: Hag

I first came across stories of Baba Yaga, the bogeyman of Russian and Eastern European fairytales, during a university project on storytelling theatre; she also crops up in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, but otherwise isn't hugely known in the West. She's an interesting variation on the fairytale witch in the woods who's always interested me, so a show coming to Soho that purports to tell her side of the story seemed worth a punt. Hannah Mulder's Hag makes passing reference to the famous house on chicken legs, but the main characteristic of the witch it looks at is her taste for human flesh, particularly children's. Baba Yaga (Laura Cairns) greets us in her home decorated with the skulls of victims, some of whose ghosts she's also kept around to serve her. But the story she wants to tell us is one she believes paints her in a better light than we might have heard about her.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Theatre review: Jekyll & Hyde

In the 1970s Hammer made a horror film called Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which saw Robert Louis Stevenson's mad scientist transform himself into an evil woman. For the latest Edinburgh transfer to Southwark Playhouse's Little, Jekyll & Hyde, the conceit gets reversed. In Jonathan Holloway's adaptation of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, lawyer Henry Utterson (Michael Edwards) is intrigued by the will of Dr Jekyll, which has the mysterious criminal Edward Hyde as its sole beneficiary. Seeking out Jekyll (Cristina Catalina,) Utterson discovers the doctor is in fact a woman, for whom he falls pretty quickly. Her medical qualifications aren't the only way she's ahead of her time for an 1880s woman, as she uses promises of sex to keep Utterson in line. But as she seems to become more and more in thrall to the unseen Hyde, the lawyer tries to discover what the connection between them is.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Theatre review: Roots

"Everyone's so bored!" wails Jessica Raine, accurately. In Arnold Wesker's Roots at the Donmar Warehouse, Raine is Beatie, returning for a couple of weeks' visit to her family in Norfolk. We know it's Norfolk because everyone speaks in an accent that sounds vaguely Westcountry via Ireland with the occasional detour to Australia, and whenever actors sound like they're making the accent up as they go along it invariably turns out to be an attempt at Norfolk. And lo, Norwich and Diss get mentioned, so it seems I was right. Beatie now lives in London with her boyfriend Ronnie. Ian thought his name was actually Rani, but I put it down to that accent again, because if she was dating a rogue Time Lady it would probably have been mentioned. Then again, mentioning interesting things would probably go against the spirit of the play.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Theatre review: The Light Princess

A lot of long-awaited projects have been finally making their way to the stage at the National this year; after the Lester/Kinnear/Hytner Othello and before the SRB/Mendes Lear, comes Tori Amos' debut as a composer of musical theatre. With Samuel Adamson she's adapted The Light Princess from a fairytale by George MacDonald. Two warring kingdoms separated by a dangerous forest, Lagobel is rich in gold but plagued by drought, a problem that, as its name suggests, Sealand doesn't have. When Princess Althea of Lagobel (Rosalie Craig) loses her mother, she deals with it by becoming unable to find anything serious again, her lightness of spirit manifesting itself literally as she starts to float. When the same thing happens to Prince Digby of Sealand (Nick Hendrix) he goes the other way and becomes a humourless warrior. When the nations' animosity finally breaks out into war, the two are pitted against each other but, of course, opposites attract.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Theatre review: Routes

Rachel De-lahay returns to the Royal Court Upstairs after The Westbridge with her follow-up Routes, which sees two men coming from opposite directions to end up in the same place: A detention centre for illegal immigrants waiting for deportation. The more obvious route is that taken by Femi (Peter Bankolé,) a Nigerian man whose family are living legally in London, but who for reasons that are revealed later can't join them through official channels. He deals with the shifty Abiola (Seun Shote,) always demanding bigger sums of money to get him his fake passport and visa to the UK, but the attempt to slip past Immigration looks less likely to succeed the more we find out about Femi. The real heart of the story though is a route that starts closer to home, in a London hostel and halfway house.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Theatre review: Ghosts (Almeida)

For his production of Ghosts at the Almeida, Richard Eyre provides his own translation of Ibsen's play about the dangers both of unfettered sexuality, and its repression. Lesley Manville plays Helene Alving, a wealthy widow preparing to mark the 10th anniversary of her husband's death by opening an orphanage in his memory. The arrival of her artist son Oswald (Jack Lowden) after two years away is meant to be a further cause for celebration, but instead it's the catalyst for Mrs Alving to confess some painful truths. Oswald is ill, and he's also flirting with the maid, Regina (Charlene McKenna.) Both of these are cause for concern because the late Captain was far from the paragon of virtue he's been painted as. His widow is troubled by the "ghosts" of memories being dragged up, but the Captain actually left a couple of physical reminders of his infidelities behind too.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Theatre review: The Commitments

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

The latest in a series known as "Jamie Lloyd must have a fucking enormous mortgage to pay off," the ubiquitous director tackles a big West End musical - or, as they're insisting, a play with songs - as Roddy Doyle brings his best-known book The Commitments to the stage. In 1986, Jimmy (Denis Grindel) works in the offices of a sweet manufacturer but believes his true calling lies in managing a band. Spotting what he thinks is a gap in the market for soul music that speaks to the working class, he advertises for a band to cover soul classics with a Dublin twist. Mentored by their trumpet player Joey (Ben Fox,) who claims to have played with all the greats, The Commitments go from disastrous beginnings to real crowd-pleasing promise, but their story is destined to end before it really begins.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Theatre review: Black Jesus

"I rode into town on an ass. YO MAMA'S ASS!" Actually no, Black Jesus isn't an extended version of that Family Guy cutaway gag, but Anders Lustgarten's return to the Finborough after a shaky outing at the Royal Court. Black Jesus is the nickname given to Gabriel Chibamu (Paapa Essiedu,) a particularly brutal footsoldier in Robert Mugabe's regime, so called because he got to pass judgement on people's fates. The play takes place in 2015, and Gabriel's exactly where he feels he belongs, in prison. Eunice (The EnsembleTM's Debbie Korley) works for the Truth and Justice Commission, an organisation she knows full well has been set up primarily so that it looks to the outside world as if Zimbabwe is doing something to confront its past.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Theatre review: The Lightning Child

Euripides' The Bacchae features an antagonist threatened by sexuality, particularly that of women, whose plan to defeat this perceived threat involves him dressing as a woman himself. Throw in that popular Greek tragedy mainstay, the hermaphrodite seer Teiresias (Bette Bourne,) and it's not hard to see why it might have something to say to transgender people to this day, and be ripe for adaptation. Hence The Lightning Child, the final new premiere of the season at Shakespeare's Globe, and the latest collaboration between Ché Walker (book and lyrics) and Arthur Darvill (music and lyrics.) A disco-infused musical adaptation of the gory classic, The Lightning Child opens with Neil Armstrong (Harry Hepple) being cautioned by his wife that his planned mission is hubristic. Armstrong, of course, goes anyway, and in a scene left out of the history books encounters the man in the Moon, aka the Ladyboy Herald (Jonathan Chambers.) An acolyte of Dionysus, the Herald tells the astronaut of another case of hubris that upset the god.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Theatre review: The Empty Quarter

Greg and Holly moved to Dubai as a result of a vague romantic attraction of Holly's to the desert. In fact when we first meet them, Holly (Jodie McNee) is recovering from wandering off out into it and getting lost. Greg (Gunnar Cauthery) hasn't taken to the place and, concerned about his wife's health as she continues to be fascinated by the desert that nearly killed her, quits his job in the hope that it'll shock her into returning to the UK with him. But he's reckoned without the draconian local laws against getting into debt. One missed mortgage payment later and he's in a Middle Eastern prison, and the only way out is a loan from the closest thing they have to friends out there, an older English couple. And a business deal with Gemma (Geraldine Alexander) and Patrick (David Hounslow) ends up looking more like a Faustian pact when the two couples become the only constant in each other's lives.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Theatre review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Probably the last of the major Brecht works I hadn't yet seen, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is the latest of Jonathan Church's West End transfers from Chichester. The satire on the rise of the Nazis recasts Hitler as Arturo Ui (Henry Goodman,) a ludicrous small-time gangster in Depression-era Chicago. He's dismissed by all as an insignificant fool but when a cauliflower cartel corrupts the respected Father of the City, Dogsborough (William Gaunt,) it opens up an opportunity for Ui. Stumbling onto a plot to misappropriate funds he blackmails Dogsborough into letting him set up a cauliflower protection racket. Soon Ui and his henchmen convert fear and violence into political power as well, and while the body count rises in Chicago, Arturo has his eye on neighbouring towns and their greengrocers.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Theatre review: Handbagged

It has the misfortune of looking like it's piggy-backing on The Audience (and in fact was almost shelved when that play was announced) but Handbagged actually predates it: Moira Buffini's play started life as an installment of the Tricycle's Women, Power and Politics in 2010.

When that show's director, Indhu Rubasingham, became Artistic Director of the venue, she commissioned a full-length version of the battle of wills between Britain's two most powerful women of the 1980s, the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. The setup remains as eccentric as before: A pairing of the two women in more recent years, Q (Marion Bailey) and T (Stella Gonet) introduce the meetings - primarily at the weekly audience Peter Morgan's play revolved around - between their younger selves Liz (Clare Holman) and Mags (Fenella Woolgar.)

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Theatre review: Tory Boyz

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The NYT are inviting the London critics in tomorrow.

A politically-themed week for me, with two Brecht plays bookmarking two plays about former Conservative Prime Ministers. The first of the latter sees the National Youth Theatre revisit a show they commissioned five years ago, James Graham's Tory Boyz. I suspect my readership won't need any hints about what the spelling of "boys" with a z signifies, but if you're a newcomer1 you might not have inferred it was about gay Conservatives. It's an enduring contradiction in British politics that a party with a poor track record on gay rights to say the least, has always had such a high gay membership. Closeted Tory MPs getting outed certainly felt like it used to be a weekly occurrence in the 1980s, and it's always been rumoured that the party also gave the UK a closeted gay Prime Minister, in the confirmed bachelor Ted Heath.