Friday, 30 January 2015

Theatre review: contact.com

A sex comedy takes a couple of dark and unexpected turns at the Park Theatre, in Michael Kingsbury's contact.com. Upper middle class couple Matthew (Jason Durr) and Naomi (Tanya Franks) have been married for 15 years, and though still seemingly comfortable in their relationship, have decided to try and get the spark back. They've registered on a swingers' website, and younger, South London couple Ryan (Ralph Aiken) and Kelly (Charlie Brooks) are coming round for a nice Friday night supper followed by some partner-swapping. After some initial awkwardness the night goes well - perhaps too well, as the next morning they can't quite face the prospect of their overnight guests leaving forever. Ryan and Kelly are invited to stay another day and night - who knows, maybe the whole weekend?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Theatre review: The Hard Problem

For Nicholas Hytner's final directing job as Artistic Director of the National, he gets one of the biggest-name writers alive to return to the stage after nine years' absence: Tom Stoppard returns to the ways academic theory interacts with people's real emotional landscapes, this time investigating the difference between the brain and the mind. We follow psychologist Hilary (Olivia Vinall) over a few years during which she keeps being troubled by the question of, if the brain is simply a collection of matter, what is consciousness, and how do we determine what has it? We first meet her as a student, and her tutor and on-off lover Spike (Big Favourite Round These Parts Damien Molony) has no doubt that the sense of self is one of many quirks of evolution, and is impatient at Hilary's more spiritual angle, that even takes in prayer. But when she gets a job with Leo (Jonathan Coy,) he encourages her interest in what is termed The Hard Problem.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Theatre review: The Talented Mr Ripley

When I first started following The Faction's work, it was with a highly physical, creative and pared-down (both in terms of production style and text) version of Macbeth. Over the years the visual, physical trademarks have remained, but Mark Leipacher's company seems to have developed a slavish devotion to the original text. This year's season opened with a Romeo and Juliet that suffered from its fear of editing out a single word, but this seems to now extend even to the company's own original writing: Leipacher adapts and directs Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr Ripley, a production with a lot of nice ideas and a stellar central performance; but a script that can't seem to accept that capturing a novel's every nuance isn't possible in a stage play. The adventures of Tom Ripley (Christopher Hughes) and their consequences therefore make for a disappointing evening.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Theatre review: Bad Jews

It's not a subtle title, but then Bad Jews isn't a subtle play. Joshua Harmon's story of warring cousins is, though, rather a clever one. On the night after their grandfather's funeral Daphna (Jenna Augen) is sharing a studio apartment with her quiet cousin Jonah (Joe Coen,) and spends much of the time railing against Jonah's older brother Liam, who missed the funeral, and whom she's long had a feud with. When Liam (Ilan Goodman) finally does arrive, it's with his gentile girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow, a fact that only infuriates Daphna more. Daphna is very vocal about her religious beliefs, planning to become a rabbi and move to Israel, so she takes Liam's atheism and shiksa girlfriend as personal affronts. Sparks fly as soon as the cousins are reunited, and while religion is the opening salvo, when a treasured family heirloom comes into the discussion things soon get personal.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Theatre review: Oppenheimer

Two years ago in the Swan, the RSC had a hit with a revival of A Life of Galileo, which gloried in the enduring enthusiasm of the scientist even as his discoveries edge his life towards tragedy. So it's not too surprising if they now revisit the theme, going straight for the subject of Brecht's metaphor: The development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Tom Morton-Smith's Oppenheimer sees the titular scientist, known to all as Oppie (Perennial Next Big Thing John Heffernan,) start as an enthusiastic, popular physics lecturer at Berkeley, whose students provide him with a ready-made pool of young scientists when a controversial new project comes calling. But long before America's involvement with the war in Europe, Oppie and his friends are concerned about the rise of fascism, and holding Communist Party fundraisers to help fight it.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Theatre review: The Fever

In a luxury hotel suite in a poor country with a terrible human rights record, a wealthy man from a First World nation is struck down with a fever that gives him constant bouts of vomiting. Stuck in his beautiful room in the middle of abject poverty, he goes over the moral crisis that's been plaguing him, and which is probably the cause of his psychosomatic illness: He cares that there are people in the world suffering appalling conditions, and wishes that they didn't have to. But his own way of life - even the most basic elements of it like knowing he can make himself a coffee first thing in the morning - is only possible in a world where there are people much worse off than him. Wallace Shawn's The Fever is the second in the Almeida's season on money; as the first play in the season is still playing at the theatre itself, Robert Icke's production has been located as near as possible to the real thing, in the Amber Suite in the luxury May Fair Hotel off Piccadilly.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Theatre review: The Changeling

Love and lust are indistinguishable, and the purest of intentions don't stay that way for long in Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling. Beatrice-Joanna (Hattie Morahan) and Alsemero (Simon Harrison) fall for each other at first sight; unfortunately for them, this coincides with a marriage being arranged between Beatrice-Joanna and Alonzo (Tom Stuart.) Desperate to get rid of her unloved fiancé, she enlists a servant she's always feared and hated to get rid of him. De Flores (Trystan Gravelle) murders Alonzo, but the payment he demands of his mistress is higher than she expected, and puts her new engagement to Alsemero at risk. Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated story is playing out at a nearby madhouse. Antonio (Brian Ferguson) and Franciscus (Adam Lawrence) have both disguised themselves as lunatics in an attempt to seduce the warden's wife Isabella (Sarah MacRae.)

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Theatre review: Bull

Although London audiences were impressed by Mike Bartlett's Cock, it's taken a while for the companion piece, Bull, to make its way here (the premiere production was originally seen in Sheffield.) Both plays turn a bloody animal fight into a verbal sparring between humans that's not much less brutal; but where the first play looked at poisonous personal relationships, Bull takes us to a boardroom so cutthroat LdAlan Sugar would need a mop to clean up the blood after every firing. Thomas (Sam Troughton,) Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) and Tony (Adam James) are a sales team in a company being downsized. One of them will be getting fired, and Carter (Neil Stuke) is on his way to make a decision. But the outcome seems inevitable long before he arrives, as Isobel and Tony have no intention of losing their jobs, and if it takes destroying Thomas completely, that's what they'll do.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Theatre review: Islands

Before the current creative team at the Bush got into the pretty good run they've enjoyed for the last couple of years, there was a very shaky six months or so. For me, the only redeeming quality of that time came from Caroline Horton's charming one-woman show You're Not Like the Others Girls Chrissy, so the prospect of Horton and director Omar Elerian teaming up again at the venue was one I'd been looking forward to. Of course, I don't expect writers to do the same thing in every show nor would I want them to, but if Islands is trying to be radically different it succeeds a bit too well - in that her last show was actually good. Horton plays Mary, a self-proclaimed god who, along with sidekicks Agent (John Biddle) and Swill (Seiriol Davies) form a holy trinity who launch a floating island, so they can stay away from the stinking Shitworld below, and keep all their cherries for themselves.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Theatre review: Bat Boy

There's a lot of musicals based on books, straight plays and movies, but there's also a few with more eccentric origins. Like a story about a half-human, half-bat from the Weekly World News, a tabloid for urban legends and tall tales, and the basis for Bat Boy: The Musical. In the town of Hope Falls, West Virginia, some kids exploring a cave uncover the teenage Bat Boy (Rob Compton.) He's taken to the house of Dr Parker (Matthew White,) in the expectation that the doctor will have him put down. But his wife Meredith (Lauren Ward) and daughter Shelley (Georgina Hagen) take to Edgar, as they call him, and he's soon accepted as a member of the family, learning to speak, read and do accountancy. But Dr Parker starts to feel as if Edgar is robbing him of his family's affection, and with the town's economy on the downturn he knows he can easily turn the population against a beastly-looking scapegoat.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Theatre review: Pig Girl

It seems like at least half the theatre bloggers in London are still eagerly awaiting the return of Armstrong's War, which far too few people got the chance to see in 2013; in the meantime we can make do with the Finborough giving over its Sunday-Tuesday slot to another Colleen Murphy play. Pig Girl is a much darker affair though: In Zoe Hammond's design, to stage left and right we have a Sister (Olivia Darnley) on the phone to a Police Officer (Joseph Rye) about the disappearance of her troubled younger sister. She's not the first drug-addicted prostitute to go missing from Vancouver and rumours of a serial killer have been rife for years, but there hasn't been a single piece of physical evidence so the police can't even officially open an investigation. These phone calls to the police take place over several years, during which time a picture slowly starts to build of what's happening to the missing women.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Theatre review: Upper Cut

The history of black politicians in the Labour party must include some interesting stories, but on this evidence former journalist Juliet Gilkes Romero hasn't heard any of them. Her play Upper Cut traces the parallel careers of two black British politicians which wind up in very different places: By 2012 Michael (Akemnji Ndifornyen) is Deputy Leader of the party, but Karen (Emma Dennis-Edwards,) at one point the great hope to be their first black MP, is moving to America to try a fresh start after decades of disillusionment. The play goes backwards in time until it reaches the Labour conference of September 1986, seeing how the radical socialist became the safe pair of hands, and the level-headed politician became the outcast loose cannon, deselected for publicly calling her own party racist at a rally.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Theatre review: The Chronicles of Kalki

Concluding the Gate's patchy "Who Does She Think She Is?" season on women and identity is, for me, the most interesting of the imported American shows we've seen get their UK premieres here. Alex Brown directs a breathless production of Aditi Brennan Kapil's play The Chronicles of Kalki, which sees a pair of teenage girls find empowerment with the help of a friend who may or may not be the living embodiment of a god. Kalki (Amrita Acharia) is the new girl in school, arriving halfway through an RE class about the avatars of Hindu gods. She befriends two girls whom she nicknames Meat (Angela Terence) and Betty (Jordan Loughran.) Never the most popular girls in school, they've even turned on each other recently, each thinking the other is holding her popularity back. Betty wants to be accepted by the resident gang of mean girls, the C-Cups, while Meat just wants the boys to notice her.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Theatre review: Othello (Frantic Assembly / Lyric Hammersmith)

Othello is the second Shakespeare play this year that I've already got three productions of lined up. Like The Merchant of Venice the first I'm seeing is a return visit to a production I saw some years ago; and like The Merchant it makes for quite a challenge for the future versions to rise to. Frantic Assembly revive their heavily edited, dance-infused version of the play which moves the action from a military encampment in Cyprus, to a violent gang based in a Yorkshire pub called The Cypress. The landlord's daughter, Desdemona (Kirsty Oswald) has secretly married the leader of the gang, Othello (Mark Ebulue.) The secret causes a fuss when it comes out, but it's soon forgotten in the aftermath of a conclusive victory over a rival gang, in which Othello's popular new lieutenant, Michael Cassio (Ryan Fletcher) plays a major role.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Theatre review: Liberian Girl

Martha (Juma Sharkah) is the titular 14-year-old Liberian Girl in Diana Nneka Atuona's debut play, but this isn't a fact most of the characters in the story are privy to: When her grandmother Mamie Esther (Cecilia Noble) realises a rebel army is approaching their village, she cuts Martha's hair off and makes her pretend to be a boy. As she'll soon find out, life for a girl in a war-torn state is brutal, but her new male identity won't make things easy for her either: As they try to flee to safety, Esther and Martha are accosted by child soldiers Killer (Valentine Olukoga) and Double Trouble (Michael Ajao.) Separated from her grandmother, Martha's disguise means she escapes being raped, but Frisky, as she's now nicknamed, is forced to fight on the side of Charles Taylor's rebels, in a civil war she barely understands.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Theatre review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

When I first saw Pedro Almodóvar’s film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown I remember being struck by how overtly theatrical it looked, and how well it would work if put on the stage. But Almodóvar is reluctant to license stage adaptations of his work, and as the film finally comes to the theatre it's in the form of an off-Broadway musical with book by Jeffrey Lane and songs by David Yazbek. Pepa (Tamsin Greig) is an actress most of whose work is in TV commercials, and in dubbing foreign film into Spanish, usually opposite her boyfriend Iván (Jérôme Pradon.) One morning she wakes up to find Iván has dumped her via answerphone message, and suddenly there's a lot she didn't know about him, like the estranged wife Lucia (Haydn Gwynne) who's been in a mental hospital for the last 19 years, and doesn't come across as massively sane even now she's been released.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Theatre review: Tree

Although I've not been following Daniel Kitson's work for as long, or seen as many of his shows as a lot of people I know, those of his eccentric monologues I've seen - most recently Analog.Ue - have made me want to catch as much as I can. His latest piece - though originally staged in Manchester a couple of years ago - is a bit of a change of style. Tree is a two-man play, in which Tim Key plays a lawyer who, having not realised the clocks have gone back, arrives at a date an hour early. He's setting up a picnic in an unlikely spot his date suggested, by a large lone tree on a residential street. What makes the location even odder is that there's a man (Kitson) sitting in the branches; he claims to have been living there for the last nine years, in an attempt to stop it joining all the other trees in the street and being chopped down.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Theatre review: The Grand Tour

Unusually for the Finborough, their first show of 2015 is running for two months rather than just one - like one of its characters, they must be optimistic about the chances of The Grand Tour, a 1979 Jerry Herman musical that has never before been staged in Europe, finding a large audience. Set in France in 1940, it follows Polish Jew Jacobowsky (Alastair Brookshaw,) who's been fleeing persecution all his life, and now buys a car to make his latest escape - except he can't drive. Antisemitic Polish Colonel Tadeusz Stjerbinsky (Nic Kyle) has a list of names he needs to deliver to London to help the resistance against the Nazis back in Poland. He can drive, but has no means of transport, so with only the country of their birth in common the two team up for a journey to freedom - stopping along the way to pick up Marianne (Zoë Doano,) the French woman the Colonel loves.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (The Faction / New Diorama)

An unusually Shakespeare-heavy start to the year continues with what's become something of a tradition: The Faction's rep season at the New Diorama, which usually includes one of the better-known Shakespeares. The fact that director Rachel Valentine Smith was on good form in the recent Reptember season made me a bit more optimistic than I would normally be about a play I've never liked: This year's rep opens with Romeo and Juliet. Two leading Verona families have been mortal enemies for generations, for reasons nobody seems to even remember. When the Capulets host a party, Romeo Montague's (Christopher York) friends convince him to crash, in the hope that he might get over his unrequited love for Rosaline. It works, but only because Romeo quickly falls for someone else instead - his enemy's only daughter, Juliet (Clare Latham.) And unlike Rosaline, she's actually noticed he's alive and feels the same way.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Re-review: The Book of Mormon

Nearly two years after opening in London, The Book of Mormon remains one of the West End's hottest tickets. This was my first return trip to the show since I first saw it - you can read my original review here - and this time it was my Christmas present to my sister. American actors A.J. Holmes and Billy Harrigan Tighe have taken over the lead roles of Elders Cunningham and Price, and Kevin Harvey has replaced Giles Terera as the Elders' guide to the Ugandan village, Mafala Hatimbi, but otherwise the main cast have all stuck around - although tonight Lucy St Louis was understudying Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi and doing a good job of it, with a powerful voice in the funny but touching "Sal Tlay Ka Siti." Although the show was never overlong in the first place, it now seems to have shed an extra 15 minutes from when I last saw it, making it zip past all the more speedily and satisfyingly.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Theatre review: The Dragon

Back in Southwark Playhouse's previous incarnation in London Bridge, Tangram's Fuente Ovejuna made my Top Ten shows of 2010; the current Elephant & Castle location was my Theatre of the Year 2014, so between the two I was optimistic as the company returned to do a Russian classic. One I didn't think I'd heard of, but as it turns out I recognised it as one that featured as a plot point in the Finborough's Silent Planet last month. Banned by the Soviets for its far-from-oblique metaphor, Yevgeny Schwartz's The Dragon sees the knight Lancelot (James Rowland) arrive in the small Russian village where Elsa (Jo Hartland) lives, and instantly fall in love. But inevitably there's a problem: The village has been terrorised for centuries by a three-headed Dragon (Justin Butcher,) who among many tributes demands a local beauty to eat every year. The day is tomorrow and the sacrifice will be Elsa, so Lancelot sets out to slay the Dragon.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Comedy review: Lights! Camera! Improvise!

Having the set collapse on them six nights a week apparently doesn't leave the members of Mischief Theatre as bruised as they would like. So past and present cast members of The Play That Goes Wrong are spending the occasional Monday night off back at the Duchess Theatre, reviving their improv show Lights! Camera! Improvise! As the title suggests, there's a movie theme, and after Oscar (Jonathan Sayer) gets suggestions of genre, location and title from the audience, the rest of the company (Charlie Russell, Bryony Corrigan, Henry Shields, Nancy Wallinger, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn and Josh Elliott) have to bring it to life. Tonight we got a romantic comedy called "Plenty More Fish," in which shy Gerald-the-man (Shields) has to declare his love for Susie (Wallinger) before she leaves her job at the aquarium at the end of the week. But he has competition from her ex, Tony (Hearn,) an alpha-male fishmonger whose seduction technique is inspired by an angry seagull.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Theatre review: Love's Labour's Won (RSC / RST)

For the RSC's run through the complete works of Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing is being staged under the title Love's Labour's Won, on the (reasonable) assumption that this is the real identity of the mysterious "missing" comedy some sources refer to. In Christopher Luscombe's paired productions it's being presented as a direct sequel to Love's Labour's Lost, which ended with the various couples separated as the men go off to the First World War. Love's Labour's Won has been set at Christmas 1918, with Leonato's (David Horovitch) home still being used as a makeshift hospital, his daughter Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and niece Beatrice (Michelle Terry) nursing wounded soldiers. But the War is over now and the house can start going back to normal with the arrival of a victorious regiment led by Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson) and including Beatrice's ex-lover and favourite sparring partner Benedick (Edward Bennett.)

Friday, 2 January 2015

Theatre review: The Merchant of Venice (Almeida)

In my end-of-year reviews I usually have a look at some of the recurring themes that have kept turning up on stage in those months. Most are unexpected but as I go into my first show of 2015 I already know what one of them is going to be: It's generally a Shakespeare play that theatres avoid nowadays but at the moment there's three separate productions of The Merchant of Venice that I'm planning to see in the next six months. First up is a production I first saw in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2011, Rupert Goold's high-profile relocation of the action to modern-day Las Vegas. Venice is now a '60s-themed casino where the merchant Antonio (Scott Handy) takes out a $3 million loan on behalf of his friend Bassanio (Tom Weston-Jones,) who needs it to seek out a wealthy heiress on a reality TV show.