Saturday, 31 May 2014

Theatre review: In the Vale of Health: Missing Dates

SIMON GRAY: Hello my agent! Simon Gray here. I've written a play called Japes, it's about some obnoxious, drunk intellectuals fucking.
SIMON GRAY'S AGENT: Well, you're Simon Gray, so that's pretty much what I'd expect. Shall we go stage it in a theatre then?
SG: Sounds like a plan.

(some time passes)

SG: It's Simon Gray again! Remember that play Japes?
AGENT: Yes, we staged it, on a proper stage, with human actors and everything. It was OK.
SG: Well, I was wondering what would happen if I changed a couple of words in the first three scenes - would the story turn out differently?
AGENT: Oh, well that's a wacky thought to have. Bye then.
SG: No, I actually wrote it! It's called Japes Too, and 3/4 of it is indistinguishable from Japes.
AGENT: Hmmm, sounds like staging that within a decade of Japes would be utterly pointless. How about a rehearsed reading? If we're lucky it might rain, and some students might come see it to stay dry.
SG: That'll do!

(some more time passes)

Friday, 30 May 2014

Theatre review: Hamlet (Hiraeth / Riverside Studios)

Zoé Ford's Hiraeth company came up with a successfully high-concept Titus Andronicus last year, and now she takes one of that show's ingredients, Adam Lawrence, and gives him Shakespeare's biggest role with an even more striking concept applied to it. Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince whose father has been murdered by his uncle; he wants revenge, but he's held captive by various factors, not least of all his own contradictory thoughts. Ford takes Hamlet's metaphorical imprisonment and strips it of the metaphor: Her production takes place inside a prison, where Lawrence's Hamlet has just been incarcerated for an unspecified crime. His uncle/stepfather Claudius (Russell Barnett) hasn't so much stolen Hamlet's succession as King, as that of crime kingpin, and he and Gertrude's (Joyce Greenaway) interactions with Hamlet happen in the visiting room.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Theatre review: Bakersfield Mist

Kathleen Turner is no stranger to the West End, and her latest visit sees her take on a broken woman whose one remaining hope in life is tied up in an unlikely place. Lionel (Ian McDiarmid) is an authority on modern art whose career has seen his instincts rarely betray him, and who now works for an elite art institution, investigating potential forgeries. His latest job takes him to the unlikely venue of a trailer park in Bakersfield, California, and a woman whose usual taste in art extends to generic watercolours and drawings of clowns (a detailed set design from Tom Piper.) Turner plays Maude, who bought the ugliest painting she could find in a junk shop for $3, as a gag gift for a friend. Closer inspection, though, reveals that it could be a previously unknown Jackson Pollock, and Lionel's seal of approval could mean the difference between junk and millions of dollars in value.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Theatre review: John Ferguson

In one of the Northern Irish mini-seasons they occasionally have, the Finborough Theatre are staging a pair of neglected Ulster plays. First up is the main feature, John Ferguson, dating from the early 20th century but set in the 1880s, in a failing farm near a small town. John Ferguson (Ciaran McIntyre) is getting old and sick, and has had to ask his son Andrew (Alan Turkington) to drop his plans to become a minister, in order to help him tend the land. This isn't going to be enough though, and the family is about to default on the mortgage. A possible solution comes from the well-off but weak-willed grocer Jimmy (Paul Reid,) who offers to pay off the farm's debts if John's daughter Hannah (Zoe Rainey) marries him. Hannah dithers over whether to enter a loveless marriage to save the family farm, and as she changes her mind events take a violent turn.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Theatre review: Johnny Got His Gun

With a great deal of attention - deservedly - focused on the main house, Southwark Playhouse haven't allowed their studio space to get ignored, and have brought one of their big-name creatives, director David Mercatali, to The Little. Another commemoration of the First World War's centenary sees Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun adapted as a monologue by Bradley Rand Smith. Jack Holden plays Joe Bonham, an American soldier whose narration jumps back and forth, confusingly at first, between the day he left his small town to set off to war, and his current situation, incapacitated in some way in a hospital. As his thought processes start to clear a bit, we understand the full horror of his situation as he does: All four limbs have been amputated after an explosion that also deafened, blinded, and left him unable to speak; yet somehow, horribly, he's still alive.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Theatre review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Some genres barely ever get seen on stage, and you can definitely count the Western among them. So even though I've never really been a fan of Western films, spaghetti or otherwise, I was interested to see what Jethro Compton would do with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it turned out to be a great decision. When young lawyer Ransome Foster (Oliver Lansley) embarks on an ill-thought-out journey to the West, he ends up beaten up by outlaws in the middle of nowhere, and needing rescuing. Rance ends up recuperating in a saloon in the tiny town of Twotrees, where he falls for the landlady, Hallie (Niamh Walsh.) As an excuse to stay for a while, he agrees to teach Hallie and some of the locals to read, but his top student is Jim (Lanre Malaolu,) and the local outlaw gang led by Liberty Valance (James Marlowe) aren't too happy about a black man getting an education.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Theatre review: Miss Saigon

Most long-lived big musicals have their day and, once they've closed in the West End, may be seen in later years in smaller productions. Miss Saigon, on the other hand, closed 15 years ago but now returns with as much pomp and publicity as it ever had. It seemed a bit of a gamble to me but Cameron Mackintosh must have known something I didn't about public demand for its return, as the show recouped its costs before press night, and has already extended its booking period into next year. Based on Madame Butterfly (doesn't everything seem to be?) Miss Saigon follows Kim (Eva Noblezada,) a 17-year-old orphan acquired by a Saigon brothel catering to US soldiers in the middle of the Vietnam war. She and a young sergeant, Chris (Alistair Brammer,) fall in love and plan to marry and return to America together, but the fall of Saigon and America's hasty retreat from Vietnam sees them parted.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Theatre review: Dead Party Animals

There's a time-honoured tradition of actors giving themselves both a job and a showcase by writing a monologue, and the latest is Thomas Pickles, a young actor who appeared in the RSC's 2012 Merry Wives of Windsor (half of whose cast seem to have been there tonight in support.) He performs Dead Party Animals, in which a teenage boy recounts a Friday night out in his small Northern town: from trimming his pubes shorter than he'd intended, to going to a club with his mates, right through to the consequences, of vomiting and hangovers. A thread that runs through the whole night is Emma, the sister of one of his friends and the reason he went out in the first place. As he tells us of his sweet attempts to grab her attention, though, there's some details he's keeping from the audience.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Theatre review: This May Hurt A Bit

How do you follow up a musical about piss? If you're the St James Theatre, it seems, you do it with a play that's really quite shit. Over at Out of Joint, writer Stella Feehily and director Max Stafford-Clark have discovered this exciting new form of political theatre from Russia called agitprop, which they've taken less than a century to bring to the UK. The destruction by stealth of the National Health Service is an incredibly disturbing subject that should be more honestly reported by the media, and one that deserves a lot better than Feehily's This May Hurt A Bit. The play feels so dated it has the opposite effect of what it intends: The topic is an urgent and current one, but the hackneyed attempts to bring it to the stage make the play, and consequently the subject it tries to highlight, feel like a museum piece.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Theatre review: In The Heights

Set among the Dominican and Puerto Rican community of New York's Washington Heights neighbourhood, Tony-winning musical In The Heights has taken a few years to make it to London, but finally does so explosively at Southwark Playhouse. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' show follows a couple of local families, starting with the narrator-like Usnavi (Sam Mackay) who runs a grocery store and coffee shop with help from his younger cousin Sonny (Damian Buhagiar.) Their grandmother Claudia (Eve Polycarpou) is a matriarch to the whole community, which also includes entertaining hairdresser Daniela (renowned Flashclomper Victoria Hamilton-Barritt,) who is having to relocate her salon to the Bronx because the rent on her Heights place has got too high.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Theatre review: A Handful of Stars

A crumbling pool hall in 1980s Ireland is the setting for a number of disappointing lives to play out in Billy Roche's A Handful of Stars: Its owner Paddy (Michael O’Hagan) is elderly and in bad health, and mocked even by the local police for how little his life has amounted to. Retired boxer Stapler (Keith Duffy) is attempting a comeback which isn't going too well, and only proving that his best days are behind him. And Tony (Brian Fenton) is about to get married to a girl he got pregnant; his biggest ambition in life is to be invited into the Members' Room of the pool hall, where there's a full-sized snooker table and nicer chairs. In the middle of all this is Tony's friend Jimmy (Ciarán Owens,) who turns up for a game most nights. Witty and energetic, Jimmy has however observed how trapped in their lives the men in his town are, and knows he's no different.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 5

There's been some changes to the Secret Theatre project at the Lyric Hammersmith: Charlotte Josephine seems to have been quietly replaced with Matti Houghton in the cast, and while Cara Horgan is still listed as part of the company, she wasn't in tonight's performance. The "secret" part is the one that's changed the most, with an increasing amount of publicity before each show. Shows 1 and 2 were designed to be a complete mystery to the audience until the moment the curtain went up, but by the time we get to Show 5, the piece the company will be taking to the Edinburgh Festival, it was made public beforehand that this was a piece devised by the company, and that it would feature a different one of them as the main character every night. Beyond that I'll stick to the rules I originally gave myself for reviewing these shows, of not mentioning details or the real title until after the text break. So spoilers abound from here on in.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Theatre review: Incognito

Nick Payne scored his best-received play so far, Constellations, by using scientific hypotheses to structure his narrative. He now replaces quantum physics with neuroscience for his latest, Incognito. Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O'Donnell and Sargon Yelda play numerous roles in three separate stories whose themes sometimes connect and spark: A young man in 1950s England, Henry (Yelda,) has brain surgery intended to stop his blackouts, but instead it results in a rare, debilitating form of amnesia that makes him a medical oddity. A couple of years later in America, Albert Einstein dies. Thomas (Hickey) carries out the autopsy, and in the process steals his brain. Using it to determine the physical source of genius becomes a lifelong obsession. And in the present day, neuropsychologist Martha (Lowdell) gets divorced; her fresh start in life sees her date a woman (O'Donnell.)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Theatre review: The Pajama Game

The fun side of sexual harassment in the workplace comes to the Shaftesbury Theatre as Chichester's production of The Pajama Game transfers. In what is only the first in this year's major West End musicals about an industrial dispute in a factory, Sid (Michael Xavier) joins the Sleep Tite Pajama Company as factory superintendent, where he quickly gets on the wrong side of the workers and has to deal with one of the trade union representatives, Babe (Joanna Riding.) Despite their first meeting being a clash, and despite her being named after a sheep-pig, Sid falls for Babe, and although she protests otherwise initially, the feeling is mutual because this is a musical rom-com. As soon as they have both declared their love though, a strike over the factory workers' demands for a 7.5 cent pay rise threatens to break them up.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Theatre review: Yellow Face

The temporary auditorium outside the National Theatre was meant to have closed by now, but its success has led to an extension of its lifespan by a few years. What hasn't been as long-lived is the name The Shed, which seems to have been caught up in a copyright muddle, and as a result the venue doesn't currently have a name. That won't do, so until the National come up with a better suggestion, I'm going to call the big red wooden box Keith. Keith's first show is David Henry Hwang's semi-autobiographical Yellow Face, about a late-'90s witch hunt against Chinese-Americans, largely forgotten as 9/11 soon provided a new source of racial paranoia. The story starts a few years earlier and, having won a Tony for his play M. Butterfly, Hwang was one of the most prominent Asian-Americans on Broadway around the time Miss Saigon came to town, bringing with it Jonathan Pryce in yellowface.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Theatre review: Donkey Heart

The Old Red Lion has supplied the West End with a surprising amount of content in recent years, and their latest premiere sees the West End give back with a few big-name creatives going to the room above an Islington pub. The lighting is by recent Olivier nominee Peter Mumford, some of the cast have recently been in hit commercial shows, and the director is Nina Raine. The latter's involvement isn't that surprising though, as the playwright is her younger brother Moses Raine, and Donkey Heart touches on their family's Russian ancestry. The setting is a flat in modern-day Moscow where Ivan (Paul Wyett) and Zhenya (Wendy Nottingham) live with Ivan's father Alexander (Patrick Godfrey) and their children Sasha (Lisa Diveney,) Petya (James Musgrave) and Kolya (Albie Marber tonight, alternating with Pierre Atri.) Communism may be gone but the family live in what they describe as a collective hangover from it: They aren't (to the best of their knowledge) under constant surveillance, but the habit of keeping their thoughts and emotions to themselves is a hard one to break.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Theatre review: Waiting for Godot

I know it's pretty much all anyone expects of me, but I really should stop letting my libido dictate my theatregoing. This time the prospect of an attractive actor has let me go against my better judgement and well-documented aversion to Samuel Beckett, and book for the impenetrable dullard's best-known play in which, famously, nothing happens. Twice. The attractive actor, Tom Palmer, is at least very attractive, although as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot he's also lumbered with green teeth, numerous sores and bald patches. Because Simon Dormandy's production veers as far from the path as the draconian Beckett estate will allow (I saw an article that was quite impressed he was allowed to give the actors baseball caps instead of the bowler hats demanded by the script, which gives you an idea of what anyone trying to inject their own personality into a production is dealing with.)

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Theatre review: Microcosm

Up-and-coming playwright Matt Hartley takes us to a hot, stuffy summer in a desirable part of London in Microcosm. At least, the area seems desirable when Alex (Philip McGinley) and his girlfriend Clare (Jenny Rainsford) move in, money left in his grandmother's will having meant Alex could afford somewhere nicer than a young couple might otherwise expect. But the suburban dream doesn't last long, and as well as an overly friendly neighbour who won't leave him alone, Alex is soon making enemies of a local gang of teenagers: Coming from a small town, it's not in his nature to stand by and ignore problems, so when one of the kids speeds on his motorbike down the residential road he confronts him - and finds himself targeted by a gang throwing bricks through his windows and posting turds in his letterbox.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Theatre review: Arden of Faversham

The RSC's Swan has been rededicated to its original purpose of staging work by Shakespeare's contemporaries, and Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman programmes the first season in this capacity, Roaring Girls, which focuses on plays with prominent roles for women - in particular, women who go against the grain of society's expectations. Arden of Faversham, whose author remains unknown, is based on the true story of the titular landowner murdered by his wife. In Polly Findlay's modern-dress production, Arden (Ian Redford) becomes the owner of a factory manufacturing Japanese lucky cats, who suspects his wife Alice (Sharon Small) of having an affair with Mosby (Keir Charles.) He's right, but they're also plotting to murder him. Ironically it's Arden's own wealth that will enable Alice to bribe a succession of ne'er-do-wells to help get rid of her husband.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Theatre review: All's Well That Ends Well (Arpana / Globe to Globe)

Globe to Globe saw Shakespeare's Globe play host to (almost) the entire canon, each play performed in a different language. What was meant to be a one-off part of the World Shakespeare Festival seems to have become an annual fixture, with new productions now being commissioned for a run on the South Bank - of the three shows this year, only All's Well That Ends Well is a returning visitor from 2012. Performed in the Gujarati language by India's Arpana company, Mihir Bhuta's Sau Saaru Jenu Chhevat Saru isn't a direct translation of Shakespeare's play, more a loose adaptation of the main plot. Heli (Manashi Parekh) loves Bharatram (Chirag Vora,) but he's not interested in her. When she cures his wealthy uncle (Utkarsh Mazumdar) of TB, Heli is promised whatever reward she wants, and she chooses Bharatram's hand in marriage. He has no choice, but after the wedding he flees to Burma, telling his wife he will only recognise their marriage if she performs two impossible tasks.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Theatre review: The Testament of Mary

The Barbican plays host to a hit transfer from New York, as Fiona Shaw performs Colm Tóibín's monologue The Testament of Mary. Based on Tóibín's novella of the same name, it presents exactly what the title suggests, as the Virgin Mary gives her perspective on a few key stories from the New Testament: The miracles of healing the lame, resurrecting Lazarus and turning water into wine - although the first two of these are presented as hearsay and the third, the only one Mary was actually present for, didn't actually convince her anything supernatural had gone on. Her narration builds, of course, to Mary having to stand by and helplessly witness the crucifixion, but the idea that this holds any religious or political significance beyond a mother losing her son is an agenda she wants no part of.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

A play best known for scandalising audiences in the late 19th century is always going to have trouble creating quite as much impact in the 21st. Any production of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening now has an additional hurdle if it wants to stand out, as Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's musical version raised the bar in its irreverence and energy. The last production of the straight play I saw felt dry, like it was simply missing the songs, but Headlong is the kind of company that exists to see things differently, and this new version quickly imprints its own identity on the play. It's the story of Melchior (Oliver Johnstone,) a nihilistic teenager at the centre of a group of friends trying, with limited success, to tackle growing up. The adults in their lives are no help, in fact whether they're putting undue pressure on their children or leaving important gaps in their sexual education, they're most often a hindrance.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Comedy review: Fame: Not The Musical

I don't often venture away from straightforward theatre to standup comedy, but I'd been told David Baddiel bringing his latest show to the Menier Chocolate Factory wasn't to be missed. It's his first standup show in 15 years, having become disillusioned by a corporate gig when a roomful of bankers weren't amused by him calling them all cunts (this was back in the days when that wasn't the nicest thing anyone ever called them.) As off-West End theatres go the Menier's a decent size, and Baddiel is playing a whole month there, but he used to play Wembley Stadium, and that's one of the main points about Fame: Not The Musical, which looks at what it's like to be quite famous but not as famous as you used to be; as well as the peculiar disconnect that allows people to talk about and interact with celebrities as if they're not real people.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Theatre review: My Name Is...

A few years ago a story caught the media's attention for the way it seemed to encapsulate the culture clash between Islam and the West: The daughter of a white Scottish mother and a father of Pakistani descent, teenager "Gaby" had been raised in Glasgow, but had apparently been abducted by her father and taken to Pakistan, allegedly to be married off to an older man. Her mother launched an international hunt for her, but when the girl was found she insisted her name was Ghazala, and she'd gone voluntarily. Needless to say the story was a bit more complicated than it first appeared, and Sudha Bhuchar's verbatim drama My Name Is...sees the writer interview Suzy (Karen Bartke) in Scotland, and Ghazala (Kiran Sonia Sawar) with her father Farhan (Umar Ahmed) in Pakistan, and tries to piece together the story from the conflicting accounts.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Theatre review: Velocity

If you enjoy feeling baffled, London's theatres are really catering to your interests at the moment. Daniel Macdonald's Velocity takes the alternate slot at the Finborough with a gleefully surreal story of a teenage girl who longs for a bit more of what she imagines a "normal" family life to be, and tries to use science to make it happen. Dot (Rosie Day) is 15, and for her Physics project she'll be experimenting with Newtonian theories by blowing her father up and out of his 73rd floor office. The six seconds it takes him to fall to the ground are slowed down to last the whole of her presentation, so before Michael (Nicholas Cass-Beggs) goes splat we get to meet him and his TV presenter wife Laura (Helene Wilson) and see what Dot sees, as they prioritise their work over her and over each other.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Theatre review: Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare's Globe)

This time last year I'd yet to see a production of Titus Andronicus, but the popularity of Shakespeare plays really does seem to go in cycles, and now I've notched up my third. Lucy Bailey's production at the Globe is in fact a revival of a hit version from 2006, and sees William Houston take on the titular role of the Roman general whose deeds in battle are so impressive, he's tasked with choosing the next Emperor out of a pair of rival brothers. He gives the laurel wreath to Saturninus (Matthew Needham) but the Andronicus family's favour with the ruler is short-lived: Titus' daughter Lavinia (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) rejects Saturninus' proposal in favour of his brother, and instead the new Emperor marries Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Indira Varma,) whose eldest son Titus just sacrificed. Suddenly Titus' greatest enemy is the most powerful woman in Rome.

Theatre review: In the Vale of Health: Japes Too

Three quarters of the way through Simon Gray's In the Vale of Health sequence, and all I am is more strongly convinced that staging this quartet is an incredibly elaborate vanity project, and one created for the benefit of someone who isn't even alive to enjoy it. The original stand-alone play was Japes, about a ménage à trois that sees Anita (Laura Rees) married to Michael (Jamie Ballard) for decades while carrying on an on-off relationship with his younger brother Japes (Gethin Anthony.) Then there was Michael, a shorter piece which ditched the first act and retold the second from an ever-so-slightly different angle. And now there's the third (though written second) in Hampstead's series, Japes Too, which aims to follow the characters from the original play, but see how things might have turned out if certain details had been different.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Theatre review: Avenue Q

It's the musical that won't go away - it was resident at three different West End theatres, then got a large-scale UK tour, a fringe debut last year and now a smaller-scale UK tour kicks off in Greenwich (its history in That New York has similarly seen it bounce on and off Broadway for years.) Anyone who's been following this blog for a while knows Avenue Q is my favourite musical and, Hamlet excepted, the show I've seen more times than any other - tonight's visit was my thirteenth. For anyone who's somehow missed the fun, Avenue Q is the story of Princeton (understudy Will Hawksworth tonight,) who moves into the titular New York neighbourhood just after graduating from college, hoping it'll be the first step in finding his purpose in life. What he gets instead is a funny, rude and touching lesson in making the best out of what life throws at him.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Theatre review: Debris

You've got to feel sorry for actors sometimes, when they're faced with audiences who seem to be there for no other reason than to get in the way of them doing their job. Thanks to the worst-behaved audience I've sat in for a long time, I don't feel like I can give a totally clear review of Debris at Southwark Playhouse. Dennis Kelly is a writer whose work I've had wildly variable reactions to in the past, and his debut play, revived here for its tenth anniversary, is bleak, non-linear, non-literal, and narrated by a pair of characters whose word we definitely can't take as gospel. So having an audience consisting mostly of rowdy teenagers determined to treat it as a panto, and constantly trying to wrong-foot the actors, wasn't conducive to understanding or judging the play at its best.