Friday, 28 November 2014

Theatre review: The Green Bay Tree

Concluding the Jermyn Street Theatre's season reviving forgotten inter-war plays is one that could probably have done with being left forgotten. In Mordaunt Shairp's The Green Bay Tree, Dulcie (Richard Stirling) is a flamboyantly camp, vastly wealthy middle-aged aesthete who, twelve years ago, adopted an alcoholic's son as his ward. Now 23, Julian (Christopher Leveaux) has been raised to his mentor's lifestyle, so is barely-educated in anything other than flower-arranging and turning up fashionably late to the opera. So it's a shock to him to discover, on presenting his guardian with Leonora (Poppy Drayton,) that if he marries her Duclie will cut him off from his allowance. Reconnecting with his reformed father (Richard Heap,) Julian attempts to live a more frugal life and study so he can join Leonora's veterinary practice, but once the novelty wears off he finds luxury is hard to give up for long.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Theatre review: Chimera

A chimera is a mythological creature that combines parts of various different animals, but in medical terms it describes someone with two completely separate types of DNA. It occurs when a foetus reabsorbs its twin, too early in the pregnancy to result in conjoined twins, but too late for the surviving foetus to eliminate every trace of its sibling. So, in Deborah Stein's Chimera, which she co-created and co-directs with performer Suli Holum, Jennifer is a woman most of whom is made up of her own DNA, but a couple of organs have that of her unborn sister. Crucially, this includes her reproductive organs, which means technically her 8-year-old son is not genetically hers. The identity crisis that results from Jennifer's discovery is quite a severe one; it sees her unable to connect with the boy any more, and culminates in her leaving her family.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Theatre review: Stink Foot

Topless men covered in treacle may not be the first thing that comes to mind about Greek tragedy, but then Sophocles' Philoctetes does take its storyline from one of the odder subplots of the Trojan War myth: One of the Greek generals headed to Troy, Philoctetes was bitten on the foot by a snake, a wound which became badly infected. So badly, in fact, that the smell got too much for the others on the ship, and en route Odysseus dumped him on a deserted island. But, nine years on, a prophecy reveals that Troy will only fall to Hercules' magic bow, which now belongs to Philoctetes. The bow needs to be wielded by Neoptolemus, son of the late Achilles, so Odysseus decides to kill two birds with one stone: Neoptolemus will be brought to Troy, and on the way will stop off to get Hercules' bow - one way or another.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Theatre review: Saxon Court

If December's on the horizon then it's a good bet there'll be a play about an office Christmas party. It's a very specific Christmas in Daniel Andersen's debut Saxon Court, that of 2011, and the office is near St Paul's Cathedral. So as well as the ongoing effects of the financial crisis, the recruiters at Saxon Court also have to deal with the Occupy protesters on their doorstep. Donna Saxon's (Debra Baker) company recruits for the financial sector, and though they have plenty of clients on their books it's been a while since they found a job for any of them, and Donna's facing the probability that her company may go under. She knows she needs to fire someone if they're to stand any chance of staying in business, but with the staff from the Dartford branch due to arrive for the party later in the day, she tries to bury this harsh reality, and demands her staff have an aggressively good time.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Re-review: Urinetown

When I first saw Jamie Lloyd's production of off-Broadway musical Urinetown back in March, I thought Soutra Gilmour's too-large-for-the-St James set indicated that a West End transfer was planned; but I also thought it would always be a hard sell there. Both proved true: It's currently playing at the Apollo but has recently shaved a couple of weeks off its run to accommodate the incoming My Night With Reg transfer next year. You can read my original review of Urinetown here; I enjoyed it at the time but probably wouldn't have made a return visit if there hadn't been a very good discount deal at the Last Minute. It turned out to be worth the revisit though, partly thanks to some central recasting. And no, although Nathan Amzi is good as the new Officer Barrel, it's not him I mean.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Theatre review: Pomona

A huge amount of Twitter buzz saw me make a last-minute trip to Richmond for Alistair McDowall's wildly surreal Pomona, a mix of urban thriller, epic fantasy quest and Lovecraftian horror. Ollie (Nadia Clifford) is searching for the identical twin sister who vanished some weeks earlier. There's also been a number of disappearances at the brothel where Fay (Rebecca Humphries) fled to after her policeman husband abused her. Both mysteries may find a solution in Pomona, a concrete island in the middle of Manchester isolated by canals and defunct train lines. Nobody seems to quite notice Pomona is even there, but just in case anyone gets curious the gangsters who make mysterious deliveries there have hired Moe (Sean Rigby) and Charlie (Sam Swann) as security guards. But their boss Gale (Grace Thurgood) now wants them to take a more hands-on role in the business.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Almost-a-review: God Bless the Child

Not quite a review because I didn't see all of Molly Davies' God Bless the Child. Not because I didn't want to, but because 10 minutes from the end the performance had to be cancelled due to one of the cast getting ill. As it's pretty much sold out tonight's audience had to be refunded rather than reschedule to another date, so this is the best I can do as far as reviewing Vicky Featherstone's production goes.

The first time I ever went to the Royal Court Upstairs, it had been turned into a pretty realistic B&B room in Scarborough, and this is the most uncanny transformation I've seen there since: Chloe Lamford has turned the attic space into the primary school classroom of Class 4N, who have been chosen to trial a new government teaching initiative.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Theatre review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is Rufus Norris' final directing job at the National before he takes over as its artistic director, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's typical of what's to come from a director who's always had a very global perspective. The part of the world we're taken to by David Hare's play, based on the non-fiction book by Katherine Boo, is the Annawadi slum outside Mumbai, near its ever-expanding airport. On the other side are a number of luxury hotels, their guests shielded from the poverty by advertising billboards offering, among other things, "a beautiful forever." While India's economy booms, the residents of Annawadi are at the bottom of the food chain: The neighbourhood's chief industry is collecting and sorting litter, so it can be sold on for recycling. And even in this business rivalries cause a lot of animosity, as the Husain family's fast turnaround is leaving less work for others.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Theatre review: Piranha Heights

The original 2008 production of Piranha Heights was the first Philip Ridley play I ever saw, and in stark contrast to how big a fan of the playwright I've become in the years since, I didn't like it. I know from experience of introducing others to his work, though, that his very particular style can take a while to get used to, and people don't always respond to the first play of his they see. So I was interested to see what I thought of it the second time around, as Max Barton revives it at the Old Red Lion. Piranha Heights layers its characters on one by one, shifting the tone and upping the peril each time. The setting is a tower block flat whose resident of many years has recently died. Her youngest son Alan (Alex Lowe) hopes the housing association will let him have it next, as he plans to leave his wife and wants somewhere to live afterwards. But when his older brother Terry (Phil Cheadle) returns to sign the paperwork, he has plans of his own for the flat.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Theatre review: Not About Heroes

As 2014 nears its end so does the series of shows commemorating the First World War's centenary, but there's still a couple to go. Stephen MacDonald's 1983 play Not About Heroes seems to have had a couple of rival productions touring this year, and the one that's made it to London and Trafalgar 2 is the inappropriately-named Feelgood Theatre production. Based largely on the letters of the two best-known war poets Siegfried Sassoon (Alasdair Craig) and Wilfred Owen (Simon Jenkins,) it charts the friendship and professional relationship that developed while they were both at a mental hospital in Edinburgh. The then-unknown Owen was there for shell-shock, the already-famous Sassoon suspects he's there largely to be kept out of the way: His early jingoistic verse has been replaced by a much more realistic and critical view of the war, that goes against the official script.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Theatre review: Wildefire

Constable Gail Wilde (Lorraine Stanley) was a minor character in a Roy Williams play, who the playwright decided he'd like to see as the central figure in her own right. The result is Wildefire, which premieres in the main house as part of Hampstead's police-themed season that also includes State Red Downstairs. Patrolling a quiet town isn't quite fulfilling enough for Wilde, who at the start of the play transfers to the Metropolitan Police. With stories of her grandfather making a real difference on the same beat, she stays cheerfully optimistic in the face of cynicism from her partner Spence (Ricky Champ,) who keeps an unauthorised informant (Eric Kofi Abrefa) out of his own pocket, and isn't above outbreaks of violence. When things become personal, though, Wilde finds that the pressure soon leads her to even greater extremes than Spence.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Theatre review: Man to Man

Manfred Karge's monologue Man to Man, translated by Anthony Vivis, sees a young couple marry in Germany a little before Hitler's rise to power. The marriage lasts barely over a year before Max dies of cancer. From a combination of needing the income, and wanting to keep her husband alive in some way, his widow (Tricia Kelly) dresses as a man and takes on Max's identity, and his job operating a crane. The deception seems to fool everyone, even getting him a young female admirer, but with war on the horizon Max has a dilemma: War means conscription for a young man, but if she returns to her former identity as Ella, she'll appear vulnerable at a time when plenty of men will be willing to take advantage. Man to Man follows Germany's history throughout World War II, the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the eyes of a person whose identity - for most of that time at least - is male.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Theatre review: The Witch of Edmonton

Curses, demon dogs and, worst of all, enforced Morris dancing in the final show of the RSC's Roaring Girls season in the Swan. William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford and possibly other unknown writers worked together on The Witch of Edmonton to get it quickly to the stage in 1621 after a woman was hanged in Edmonton for witchcraft. Mother Sawyer (Eileen Atkins) is sick of being accused of witchcraft and used as a scapegoat for all the town's ills, and wishes aloud that she actually did have the powers she's accused of, so she could take revenge for all the abuse she receives. Her wish is heard by the devil, who takes the shape of a large black Dog (Jay Simpson,) and offers her the traditional deal of doing evil on her behalf, in return for her soul. Dog variously possesses and enchants the townspeople, but their downfall comes largely from the revelation of sins they'd been up to already.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Theatre review: Far Away

This year's JMK Award-winner is Kate Hewitt, who directs Caryl Churchill's Far Away at the Young Vic's Clare. It's a fairytale nightmare that follows Joan, first as a child (Emilia Jones or Sasha Willoughby,) who on a visit to her aunt Harper's (Tamzin Griffin) farm witnesses something horrific in the stables. As an adult, Joan (Samantha Colley) gets a job creating elaborate hats alongside co-worker Todd (Ariyon Bakare.) Their work is creative and beautiful, but the hats serve a grotesque purpose. Finally we see Joan, Todd (now her husband) and Harper all together, trying to stay safe from an enemy with eyes and ears everywhere. But the trio are as suspicious of each other as they are of anyone outside their walls, and in a world where anyone and anything could be an enemy, and allegiances shift constantly, it's hard to even know which side you're on.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Re-review: King Charles III

When it opened at the Almeida in the spring, Mike Bartlett's King Charles III instantly felt like a classic, so Rupert Goold's production transferring to the West End was not only a much-deserved chance for more people to see it, but also gave me an excuse for a repeat visit. For the story of this "Future History Play" and my initial thoughts you can read my original review. To start with the whole of the Almeida cast followed the show to Wyndham's, although prior commitments mean Oliver Chris has now been replaced as Prince William by Rory Fleck Byrne, whose portrayal of the next in line to the throne emphasises even more how much of a pawn he is to the Lady Macbeth-like Kate (Lydia Wilson.) And this recasting also means the balance is now redressed to make Richard Goulding's Harry the hotter prince. Unfortunately this isn't the only cast change at the moment as Tim Pigott-Smith has broken his collarbone, so the title role is being understudied by Miles Richardson, with Tim McMullan taking on Richardson's usual role as royal press secretary James.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Theatre review: State Red

Hampstead Theatre has a police-themed programme at the moment; next week I'll be seeing the main house show, but first I'm at the studio space for Atiha Sen Gupta's State Red, which looks at both the highest levels of the Metropolitan Police, and those on the ground who have to make split-second decisions and live with the consequences. Richard (Geoff Leesley) and Joyce (Maxine Finch) return from a black tie event to find their son, Luke (Samuel Anderson) has returned after going missing for a year. Luke was in the police, but had a breakdown after fatally shooting a black teenager he thought, wrongly as it turns out, to be armed. His best friend and colleague Matthew (Toby Wharton) has been keeping an eye on Luke's parents during his absence, and has driven them home tonight. As the two friends catch up, it becomes apparent that Luke hasn't been getting over the events over the last year; instead, he's decided to add some details to his statement about the killing, which could incriminate both him and Matthew.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Theatre review: 2071

2071 is the year climate scientist Professor Chris Rapley's oldest granddaughter will be the age he is now, which gives his lecture at the Royal Court its title. Rapley describes how he first became fascinated with the Antarctic as a child, and how as an adult his work has seen him studying the melting of the polar ice and the ramifications for Earth's climate. He presents inarguable evidence for climate change, a bleak prospect of how much worse it'll get when his grandchildren are adults, but finally he has some optimism that the initiatives of the world's governments have some chance of preventing the worst of it. I did puzzle over whether to call this a theatre review or come up with something else, like "lecture review," but director Katie Mitchell has insisted that it's theatre, so I have to judge it on those terms.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Theatre review: Girlfriends

The Howard Goodall season at the Union concludes with Girlfriends, about the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II, with Goodall providing the music and collaborating with Richard Curtis and John Retallack on book and lyrics. The cast features 10 women, playing the girls who enlisted to help behind the scenes on RAF missions, starting with menial but crucial jobs like folding and packing parachutes, getting to know and have relationships with the airmen, not all of whom would be returning from their missions. It's largely an attempt to give an overview of the WAAFs' lives, but it does feature a fairly slight central story of best friends Amy (Corrinne Priest) and Lou (Perry Lambert.) The latter falls for dashing pilot Guy (Tom Sterling) but he only has eyes for her friend. Meanwhile Jas (Catriana Sandison,) whose family has been devastated by bombings, becomes disillusioned and questions the value of simply inflicting similar damage on German families.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Theatre review: Jonah and Otto

We first meet ageing clergyman Otto (Peter Egan, from the 1980s,) hugging a wall, but he's not the most unpredictable character in Robert Holman's Jonah and Otto. Somewhere in a seaside town, Otto is accosted by Jonah (Alex Waldmann,) a younger man pushing his six-week-old daughter in a supermarket trolley, and trying to get money by variously begging, stealing, and performing magic tricks. Despite having only just met, the two men seem to have become quickly invested in each other, and are soon questioning each other on not only their life stories, but also their deepest thoughts on life itself. Holman is a writer whose work I approach with a fair amount of trepidation - I found Making Noise Quietly oppressively boring, but there were parts of Across Oka I thought worked beautifully. On the surface Jonah and Otto is as wilfully oblique as the former play, but in Tim Stark's production at least I found it much more successful.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Theatre review: First Episode

The ongoing Terence Rattigan revival collides with the trend for classic rediscoveries as Tom Littler revives Rattigan's professional playwrighting debut, First Episode. A modest West End hit in 1934, he shares the writing credit with his university friend Philip Heimann, although current opinion seems to be that this is a courtesy gesture, as the play is partly based on their friendship, and Heimann contributed to the plotting; the final draft is thought to be almost entirely Rattigan's though. Another inspiration is an unlikely but true story of an Oxford University amateur dramatics production that somehow convinced John Gielgud to direct Romeo and Juliet, and bring along Peggy Ashcroft to be the leading lady. Ashcroft here becomes Margot (Caroline Langrishe,) a film and theatre star persuaded to play Cleopatra opposite undergraduate Tony (Gavin Fowler) as her Antony. Finding her approachable in rehearsals, Tony invites Margot to a party at the flat he shares with three other students.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Theatre review: Made in Dagenham

The film-to-musical adaptation has well and truly become a West End fixture, but when the end result is as fresh and downright eccentric as Made in Dagenham, it's clear there's a labour of love involved, not just a cynical recycling of a familiar property. The story of the 1968 strike by female workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham now has a book by Richard Bean, music by David Arnold and lyrics by Richard Thomas, and gets a typically inventive debut production from Rupert Goold. Gemma Arterton plays Rita, who works as a machinist sewing chair covers for Cortinas. As part of a larger deal with management, the workers' union has agreed that this job can be downgraded to "unskilled" and, reluctantly at first, Rita joins in the talks to get their pay grade back. But even if the women's skill is recognised, they will still earn significantly less than men on the same grade, so she aims higher: The women's demands have now changed to equal pay with the men.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Theatre/Dance review: JOHN

After 2012's Can We Talk About This? physical theatre company DV8 return to the National's Lyttelton with another dance piece based on a verbatim text; but this time the majority of the interviews are with one man. JOHN (Hannes Langolf) describes a pretty nightmarish life: A childhood dominated by an abusive father saw his mother commit suicide, his siblings also dead, and John himself with a heroin addiction. Unsurprisingly, he grows up into a life of crime, mostly petty theft to fund his drug habit, but what sends him away for a long stretch is an act of arson he can't even remember, the result of a psychotic episode following an overdose. As well as the drug addiction, he's dealt with his lifelong depression with compulsive overeating, so when he goes into prison he tips the scales at 25 stone. While inside he trades both addictions for an obsessive exercise regime, and he's released a lot fitter, but it's not the only significant change. He likes cock now.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Theatre review: Coolatully

A certain bleakness seems to be a good way to catch the attention of the Papatango judges, a competition whose winners often delve into dark and depressing places. This year's winner is Fiona Doyle, whose Coolatully sees a full-on exodus from rural Ireland as opportunities for young people dry up. Where America was once the dream destination, following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger Australia and New Zealand are where people are now pinning their hopes, and Eilish (Yolanda Kettle) has already secured a nursing job in Sydney, departing in six months. She wants her on/off boyfriend Kilian (Kerr Logan) to join her, but he feels he still has responsibilities in Coolatully: After his brother's death the year before, his mother has all but withdrawn to her bed, and Kilian now runs her pub despite the fact that the're barely enough people left in the village to provide any customers.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Theatre review: The Rivals

The most popular of late Restoration comedies, Sheridan's The Rivals follows the titular suitors for the hand of wealthy Bath heiress Lydia Languish (Jenny Rainsford.) The two most significant candidates are actually the same person: Jack Absolute (Iain Batchelor) has the approval of his father Sir Anthony (Nicholas Le Prevost) and of Lydia's guardian, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones.) Lydia, though, is a fan of the new florid romantic novels, and won't be satisfied by a romance without a bit of danger in it. So Jack knows the only way to her heart is to pose as the lowly Ensign Beverley and promise her a scandalous elopement. Meanwhile the bumbling country gentleman Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) believes he has a chance with the heiress, as does Sir Lucius O'Trigger (Adrian McLoughlin,) who has letters to prove it - in fact O'Trigger's secret admirer isn't Lydia but her aunt.

Theatre review: Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area

Sarah Simmonds is a young playwright having her first full play produced, but Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area deals with the problems of a woman twice her age. A visit to the gynaecologist reveals that 50-year-old Victoria (Jenny Ogilvie) has already gone through the menopause without realising it. She may have avoided the hot flushes, night terrors and hair loss some of her contemporaries have gone through, but the sudden realisation that she's biologically entered a latter stage of her life leads to a crisis that makes her reevaluate her position in life and as a mother. Most of all though it leads her to look at her marriage to Jeremy (John McAndrew,) who took early retirement but is, as she sees it, wasting his time pottering in the garden, having lost all interest in her sexually. With no communication with her husband any more, she tries to find someone who'll listen in supermarkets, a menopause support group, and even a phone sex line.