Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Theatre review: Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

The small-scale touring productions of Shakespeare, where a cast of eight musically-talented actors take on all the characters in a slightly edited version of one of the plays, are becoming as much of a Globe trademark as the jig. Last year's Lear will be returning later this summer, but for my first trip of 2014 to the outdoor theatre we have a new production: A take on probably the best-loved Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, that proves the most confident take yet on making a little go a long way. A regiment led by Don Pedro (Jim Kitson) rests after a battle, at the house of the wealthy Leonato (Robert Pickavance.) Soon the much-decorated young soldier Claudio (Sam Phillips) falls for Leonato's daughter - and sole heir - Hero (Gemma Lawrence.) A hasty marriage is arranged, but Don Pedro's brother Don John (Chris Starkie) has a number of plots in mind to spoil their nuptials, and which could even put their lives in danger.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Theatre review: Archimedes' Principle

Theatre's rarely afraid to deal with touchy subjects and the Park Theatre's studio space gives us a continental take on the paranoia and witch-hunts around paedophilia. Josep Maria Miró i Coromina's Archimedes' Principle follows a single sequence of events in a swimming pool's staff changing room, but tells its story out of sequence, jumping back and forth with a few moments being repeated as we see where the pieces fit together. Brandon (Lee Knight) and Matt (Matt Bradley-Robinson) are young swimming instructors at the pool, working with children. After the morning's classes, Brandon is taken to one side by the pool's manager Anna (Kathryn Worth) and informed that a serious accusation has been made about how tactile he is with the children he teaches.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Theatre review: The Believers

Cynical, spiky and driven to the end of their tethers by their difficult child Grace, if Joff (Christopher Colquhoun) and Marianne (Eileen Walsh) had any belief in god it would be pushed to the limit by their home getting flooded. In this hour of need they're taken in for the night by the neighbours they barely know: Ollie (Richard Mylan) and Maud (Penny Layden) are religious and new age-ey, and to complete the contrast their own daughter Joyous seems to be practically perfect in every way. Although they're polite because of their circumstances, the two couples' differences, especially with regard to faith, make for an instant dislike. But a few drinks and joints later Joff and Marianne allow Maud and Ollie to perform a simple blessing over Grace that they believe will calm her down. It does, but the effect on both families ends up being a lot more drastic than expected.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Theatre review: Venice Preserv'd

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This show hasn't open'd to the press yet, aspects could be chang'd or improv'd.

Of course no amount of previews or re-rehearsals can deal with problems like the wrong venue, or a project that's been misconceiv'd from the word go. Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d is a 17th century tragedy of love, rebellion, elderly submissives and the occasional bit of gaying it up. Jaffier (Ashley Zhangazha) has married Belvidera (Pirate Jessie Buckley) against her father's wishes. Her father isn't the quickest on the uptake, as it's not until they've been married for a while and had a kid that he notices, and takes his revenge on Jaffier by having him cast out of his home penniless. Meanwhile the young people of Venice are plotting a rebellion against the rulers of the city, and the rebel Pierre (Ferdinand Kingsley) uses Jaffier's anger at his current situation to recruit him to his own cause. But Belvidera ends up becoming a pawn in the revolt, and everyone pays for it. Primarily the audience.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Theatre review: Martine

You'd expect a play called Martine to be a biography of Ms McCutcheon, but I'm afraid we'll have to wait a little while longer for an onstage reenactment of that time she vomited in Mick Hucknall's hair. Instead Jean-Jacques Bernard’s play takes place in rural France in 1920, as Julien (Barnaby Sax) returns from the war to stay with his only living relative, his grandmother (Susan Penhaligon) in a small village. On the way he meets and falls for local simpleton Martine (Hannah Murray.) This is her moment, this is her perfect moment with him, and a fortnight of flirtation follows, but the arrival of Jeanne (Leila Crerar,) to whom he had once been promised, makes him long for the company of someone better-educated. Soon Julien and Jeanne are married, and Martine is left to either watch from next door and pine, or accept Alfred's (Chris Porter) unwanted proposal.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Theatre review: The Silver Tassie

The National contributes to theatre's commemoration of the World War I centenary with a powerful but unusual, and deeply uneven classic. Sean O’Casey's The Silver Tassie is highly regarded but infrequently revived, perhaps because its structure requires a certain amount of resources, but more likely because audiences must have trouble knowing what to make of it. We follow a year in the life of Harry Heegan (Ronan Raftery) as the war changes him forever, via four scenes that not only differ in setting but also use very different dramatic styles. So we begin with a deceptively naturalistic picture of the home where Harry's parents await his return. On leave from the trenches, he's playing in the final of his football team's league, scoring the winning goal for the third year running. He returns with the silver cup - the "tassie" - but his celebrations have to be cut short as he has a boat back to the front to catch.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Theatre review: Bomber's Moon

A gentle two-hander on the main stage at the Park Theatre doesn't seem to have found its audience, judging by tonight's attendance, but covers some heavy subjects with a light touch and deserves a look. Bomber's Moon is set in a sheltered accommodation flat where the elderly Jimmy (James Bolam,) slowly dying of cancer and with limited mobility, lives. When his regular carer has to suddenly take time off, he gets passed to the inexperienced David (Steve John Shepherd.) After a successful career in management, a turn of events in his personal life saw David look for a more meaningful job and Jimmy is the first patient he's been given full responsibility for. After an awkward start the two quickly become friends, but their complicated and differing opinions on religion remain a bone of contention between them.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Theatre review: King Charles III

"A Future History Play" is how Mike Bartlett describes his newest work, and he delivers on that promise more accurately than anyone could have hoped. King Charles III takes place only a short while into the future, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It's still going to take a few months to arrange a coronation so the Prince of Wales can be officially recognised as King Charles III, but in practice he takes on the responsibilities of the throne immediately. One of Charles' (Tim Pigott-Smith) few real powers as monarch is to sign new bills into law, a responsibility that's purely ceremonial. But after centuries of monarchs signing their name regardless of their personal feelings, Charles stumbles on his first duty: A bill restricting press freedom has been passed by both Commons and Lords, but despite his family's past mistreatment by the press Charles feels it gives the politicians too much power, and withholds his signature.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Theatre review: Sunny Afternoon

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Not sure when the papers are being invited to this.

Hampstead Theatre have scored a number of West End transfers recently, and they're starting to look like that's their main aim as a producing house. It certainly seems that way as they enter the overcrowded field of the jukebox musical with Sunny Afternoon, a trip through the early years of The Kinks. Rather than fit Ray Davies' songs to an unrelated story, Joe Penhall's book recreates the band's origin and early triumphs and disasters (Davies also receives a story credit, which presumably translates into "remembering stuff.") Starting as the backing band to cheesy crooner Wace (Big Favourite Round These Parts Dominic Tighe,) Ray (John Dagleish,) his brother Pete (George Maguire) and their friend Pete (Ned Derrington1) on bass soon find that their working class earthiness is a better fit to the emerging music scene of the '60s. Adding drummer Mick (Adam Sopp) they become The Kinks, a name none of them can quite figure out the origins of.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Theatre review: The Beautiful Game

Stephen Ward was this year's entry in the "forgotten" category of Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber's back catalogue, but some of those noted flops do better as chamber pieces on the fringe. And so the Union Theatre takes on The Beautiful Game, the piece he wrote with former comedian Ben Elton, and whose title suggests is about football - but is actually about the much more musical theatre-friendly subject of sectarian violence and terrorism. Set in 1970s Belfast, it follows John (Ben Kerr) and four of his friends on an under-21s' football team with a chance of winning the local Catholic league title. But soon after winning their first game of the season, the one Protestant member of the team, Del (Stephen Barry) is hounded out by the more aggressively Nationalist of his teammates.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Theatre review: Privacy

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The newspaper critics aren't invited in until next week.

As well as the preview disclaimer, Privacy comes with the audience being sworn to secrecy about certain elements of the show. So I'm going to keep my review vague, but I'm also going to put most of it behind a text cut, and suggest you stop reading now if you have any plans to see the show, as you'll enjoy it more the less you know in advance..

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Theatre review: The Malcontent

Shakespeare's Globe has for the most part been in the true spirit of the playwright it celebrates, but the conclusion of its first indoor season would probably have him spinning in his grave as it resurrects one of his pet hates: Grumbled about in Hamlet for their annoying tendency to steal his punters, the boy players were a popular feature of the Jacobean stage, and particularly associated with the indoor, candlelit playhouses the Swanamaker recreates. John Marston wrote The Malcontent for one such boys' company, which makes it an apt - and peculiarly enlightening - choice for their own version: The Globe Young Players aren't an all-male troupe, but they do use gender-blind casting, so there's still a few boys playing girls, alongside the odd girl playing a boy. And they're all aged between 12 and 16, even if their characters and what they get up to - not just in sexual shenanigans but also in cynicism - are much older.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Theatre review: A Small Family Business

Did you know that every year as many as 47 seconds can go past without an Alan Ayckbourn play being staged in London? For as little as £5 a month you can help ensure that ageing middle-class white people like Susan and Jeremy can have a place where they feel safe and loved, outside of Waitrose's opening hours. The dream of 24/7 Ayckbourn coverage is within our grasp, but until it becomes a reality the National Theatre's remit includes a compulsory revival every couple of years. Of course, I'm being unfair to a point, but only to a point: With the right play and the right production I've been known to have a lot of fun at the playwright's comedies. But while there's no question the Olivier was full of people laughing their socks off tonight, I wasn't with them as A Small Family Business was neither the right play nor the right production to grab my interest.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Theatre review: Oh My Sweet Land

Conceived and performed by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, and written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, Oh My Sweet Land looks for an original way to present the story of Syria as seen by its refugees. The scene is Jaber's kitchen, where she chops onions, pummels cuts of meat and throws in spices to make a traditional Syrian dish that she first remembers her grandmother cooking. But the association it now holds for her is more recent, of the man she once cooked Kibbeh for: For a few months in Paris she had an affair with a refugee who was working to help others flee the country as well. When he leaves in the night she realises he's gone back to find his wife and daughter and, feeling the need to see him one last time and know he's all right, she sets off after him.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Theatre review: Birdland

Simon Stephens and Andrew Scott have previously collaborated to devastating effect on Sea Wall. Playwright and actor now reunite as Stephens writes a full-length play for Scott to star in, headlining Birdland as an international rock star called Paul (I did keep wondering if the character's name was a reference to Scott having played Paul McCartney in the past.) Paul is nearing the end of his second world tour, and his biggest yet. He's accompanied by his best friend and co-songwriter Johnny (Alex Price,) the one real link to his life pre-fame. But on the Russian leg of the tour Paul sleeps with Johnny's girlfriend Marnie (Yolanda Kettle,) who kills herself soon afterwards. With his friend no longer in a mental state to anchor him, Paul heads towards the home leg of the tour with his sanity steadily unraveling.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Theatre review: Three Sisters (Southwark Playhouse)

Until the last couple of years there was a dearth of Chekhov productions that offered anything other than a naturalistic period setting. Yet even before directors started to get a bit more adventurous around him, there was one play I'd only ever seen in modern dress. It's rather depressing that the play people always seem to think remains most relevant is Three Sisters, a play so bleak even Chekhov didn't try to pass it off as a comedy. Anya Reiss is another writer to bring the sisters bang up to date, although she does have previous - and her Seagull was also directed by Russell Bolam, so their return to Southwark Playhouse is a bit of a dream team reunion. The names of the characters haven't been Anglicised, but in other respects Reiss has tested the story's contemporary relevance by giving it a whole new context: The story is now set among British ex-pats in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.

Theatre review: In the Vale of Health: Japes

Simon Gray wrote Japes in 2001 as a stand-alone play; the other installments that make up the In the Vale of Health sequence were later additions to the story of its central characters, when he felt the work as performed didn't say everything he wanted to about them. So Japes should be a play I can easily look at in its own right, but the fact that I saw companion piece Michael last week turns out to make a huge difference to how I react to the original. Here we first join the love triangle in the early 1960s: Michael (Jamie Ballard) lives with his brother Japes (Gethin Anthony) in the house they inherited from their parents. He's starting to fall in love with Anita (Laura Rees) and approaches his brother to ask his advice on whether he should propose to her, even though Japes barely knows her.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Theatre review: Othello (Grassroots Shakespeare London / Leicester Square Theatre)

Last summer, Grassroots Shakespeare London did a two-show rep at the Old Red Lion. The results were decidedly mixed, but there was enough of interest to make me keep an eye on what the company did next. This turns out to be Othello, which they've brought to the small thrust stage of Leicester Square Theatre's basement Lounge space. The moor Othello's (Nari Blair-Mangat) military prowess is such that the authorities of Venice are happy to overlook his origins and make him their most decorated general. He's just married the young Desdemona (Annabel Bates) when a crisis in Cyprus sees him set off to fight the Turks, taking his new bride with him. He's backed up by his new lieutenant Michael Cassio (Boris Mitkov,) but Cassio's appointment hasn't been universally popular: Endlessly told how trusted he is but never rewarded for it, Iago (James Alexandrou) has been passed over for promotion one time too many, and plots revenge.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Theatre review: A View From The Bridge

Arthur Miller imagined commuters using the Brooklyn Bridge and barely registering, let alone caring, that there were people living in the neighbourhoods around it. Hence the title of A View From The Bridge, in which Miller imagines the stuff of classical tragedy taking place in the cramped apartments of Red Hook. A mostly Italian-American neighbourhood, it will sometimes see families putting up illegal immigrants from Italy, fleeing desperate poverty and glad to find work on the docks, hoping nobody rats them out to Immigration. Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) has just put up such a pair of his wife's relatives, brothers from Sicily. Marco (Emun Elliot) is a married man sending money back to his wife and children and hoping to return to them when he's made enough; but Rodolpho (Luke Norris) is single, entranced by the bright lights of America and determined to make his life there.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Theatre review: Never Try This At Home

When a show's publicity tells you that people sitting in the front row will be given a plastic mac to wear over their clothes, it's a safe bet that the front row's a place to be avoided. Of course, it's just as safe a bet that people like me and Phill will head straight for it, and that's what I recommend you do as well if you go see Told By An Idiot's Never Try This At Home. The silliest show I've seen for a long time but with a surprisingly serious core, it's a take-down of 1970s and '80s Saturday morning children's TV with a lot to say about the attitudes of the time as well. With all the characters sharing their actors' names there's a feeling that the scripted parts of the show are complemented by a fair bit of genuine improvisation - especially as it's fronted by Whose Line Is It Anyway? stalwart Niall Ashdown as a present-day TV presenter.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Theatre review: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The popular but much-criticised screen-to-stage trend has had a few knocks lately, but a Broadway import could give it a bit of a boost through, in part, getting one of the most basic elements right: Picking a source material that actually suits its new format, in this case an old-fashioned, big budget musical (complete with pause before Robert Lindsay's first line so the audience can applaud his entrance; they didn't.) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels follows the 1988 Frank Oz film very closely:  Lawrence (Lindsay) is a British con-man living in the South of France, where he makes a fortune every summer posing as a deposed prince, and convincing wealthy heiresses to fund his fictional nation's freedom-fighters. The arrival of small-time American crook Freddie (Rufus Hound) threatens to get in the way of his plans, and the only way to get rid of him is to challenge him, the loser having to leave the town forever.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Theatre review: Hopelessly Devoted

My second play in a week about women in prison, although unlike in Pests the central character of Hopelessly Devoted is still inside, and likely to stay that way for some time. Chess (Cat Simmons) murdered her abusive husband, and in the years she's been in jail she's been denied access, or any kind of knowledge of, her daughter who would now be 13. What's helped her stay calm and out of despair is the arrival of cellmate Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo,) with whom she regularly breaks into song, the pair eventually becoming a couple. But theft doesn't carry as long a sentence as murder and Serena's up for parole soon. Chess needs something else to get her through her sentence, and as author Kate Tempest is also a poet and rapper, it's perhaps not surprising that she offers music up as that alternative.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Theatre review: Almost Near

Artist Louise (Kate Miles) is planning a comeback exhibition, its centrepiece a sculpture of four British soldiers, dead from horrific injuries in Afghanistan. She insists, though, that the war is not the piece's real subject, merely a backdrop. I suspect this is a clue of sorts from playwright Pamela Carter about the thinking behind Almost Near, which features many scenes in Helmand Province, but may really be most concerned with a troubled family somewhere back in suburban England. As she plans to relaunch herself into the art world after a decade raising her son, Louise's relationship with husband Ed (Michael Sheldon) falls apart. Their scenes are interspersed with the real-life version of her sculpture: Four soldiers wake up after being bombed in Helmand. As they wonder how they could have survived their terrible injuries, they start to realise that they didn't.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Theatre review: The Kitchen Sink

Drama school showcases technically fall under the category of amateur performances, which isn't something I like to review. But given these are people who hope to be acting professionally after graduating, I'm going to take the view that they'd want to know how their efforts come across to the public.

So Tom Wells' ubiquity in 2014 continues, and even the drama schools are including him on the curriculum as LAMDA presents his 2011 play The Kitchen Sink as one of their public shows this year. The title is a statement of intent as Wells takes the bleak kitchen sink genre of people's fruitless struggles to hold on to work and find a path in life, and turns it into something distinctly his. The family living in Withernsea, a Yorkshire town slowly falling into the sea, is crumbling just as steadily but the impression given by the play is far from grim-up-North: The overriding impression is that there's always hope, in a typically funny collection of characters. The heart of the play is school dinnerlady Kath (Clio Davies,) sick of cooking chips at work every day so trying to inject a bit of variety into her meals at home (although I'm firmly on Martin's side where couscous is concerned.)

Theatre review: In the Vale of Health: Michael

Hampstead Downstairs is staging a quartet of Simon Gray plays in an ambitious project that'd already borne fruit before it even opened: Having quickly sold out, the rep season will transfer to the main house after its run in the studio. Gray's In the Vale of Health project stems from his 2000 play Japes, about a love triangle featuring two brothers. After the play was produced he felt there were alternative avenues to be explored for those characters, and proceeded to write three companion pieces that saw what happened if things had turned out differently. Tamara Harvey's production brings the four plays together, in what is the premiere stage production of the companion pieces Michael, Japes Too and Missing Dates.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Theatre review: Banksy: The Room in the Elephant

A true story provides the inspiration at the Arcola's smaller studio, but it's a starting point which can lead in a couple of different directions. Tachowa Covington is a homeless man who spent seven years living in an abandoned water tank in the Hollywood hills, kitting it out into a real home that even had its own CCTV system. The tank became a focus of attention when the graffiti artist Banksy wrote THIS LOOKS A BIT LIKE AN ELEPHANT on the side. Suddenly the tank is a piece of art with a measurable financial value, and Tachowa was kicked out. Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is Tom Wainwright's fictionalised version of his story; the monologue is followed by Hal Samples' short documentary film Something From Nothing, which features the real Tachowa's life in the tank, and the circumstances that saw him kicked out of it.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Theatre review: Pests

Vivienne Franzmann is a comparatively new playwright but one who's already demonstrated a great deal of range. After the playground politics of Mogadishu1 and the family secrets of The Witness, she takes a turn for the violently lyrical in Pests. Rolly (Ellie Kendrick) and Pink (Sinéad Matthews) are smack-addicted sisters, but Rolly comes out of prison pregnant and clean. She moves in with her sister and attempts to work on the progress she's already made: She's made a friend who works rehabilitating women who've been in prison, and who should be able to set her up with a cleaning job. But if staying off drugs is hard, doing so while sharing a squat with someone who's still using is nigh-on-impossible, and Rolly can't see through Pink's attempts to sabotage her progress.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Theatre review: Eldorado

When Wogan ended in 1992, the BBC replaced it with the much-publicised soap Eldorado, set among British ex-pats in Spain. I don't remember much about it except there was a man's naked arse in the first episode, but despite that it became a famous flop. It was taken off-air a year later, ironically just as it was starting to find an audience. Still, it meant Jesse Birdsall was now available to make Bugs, another show considered a bit of a laughing stock, but which actually did quite well for the Beeb in international sales. None of this has anything to do with the play of the same name at the Arcola's main house. Did the soap have some Germans in it? This Eldorado is written by a German - Marius von Mayenburg, whose other plays include The Ugly One, The Stone and Fireface, all of which I've enjoyed.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Theatre review: Thérèse Raquin

For the second time this year the Finborough Theatre premieres a new musical, and once again it's one taking on an unlikely dark subject: Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin is adapted for the stage with music by Craig Adams, and book and lyrics by Nona Shepphard (also directing,) and the big draw for me is that Julie Atherton plays the title character. Orphaned at a young age, Thérèse is adopted by her aunt Madame Raquin (Tara Hugo,) and when she grows up is persuaded to marry her sickly cousin Camille (Jeremy Legat.) What her aunt intends as a kindness, enfolding Thérèse into her family, actually ends up stifling her, and this only gets worse when they move to Paris, and a flat above a back alley shop. When Camille's childhood friend Laurent (Ben Lewis) turns up and is also embraced into the family, Thérèse sees an alternative.