Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

2015 feels like a strange old year to try and look back on; or, at any rate, to know where to start. Its theatre, in London at least, hasn't been dominated by one or two major themes or memes. It hasn't even been quite as full of disrobing men as we've become accustomed to, and if you've read this unholy excuse for a blog before you'll know that really leaves me up the creek. I guess I'll just have to look at how good or bad the shows were then... Last year I went against the general tide by making The Pass my Show of the Year, and I think my 2015 favourite is just as unlikely to feature in too many of the "official" lists. I've also got the successor to In the Vale of Health as Stinker of the Year to award, and this one I think might find a lot more agreement. But before the Top Ten and Bottom Five I've got the Everything Else to look at, and maybe that'll be where we figure out what this theatrical year was all about.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Theatre review: Guys and Dolls

A big musical to finish off my theatrical 2015 and, after Gypsy, another Chichester hit settles into the Savoy for a limited run (it has to be limited because one of the stars will be otherwise engaged for much of next year.) In Frank Loesser (music and lyrics,) Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows' (book) adaptation of Damon Runyon short stories, Guys and Dolls, the less salubrious side of Broadway is addicted to all-night gambling despite the law cracking down hard on it. Nathan Detroit (David Haig) runs a floating craps game* but the police clampdown has made suitable venues hard to find, and the garage where he hopes to hold the next game is demanding an advance of $1000 he doesn't have. But as luck would have it, high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) has just returned to New York, and Nathan happens to know he can't resist an unusual bet.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Theatre review: The Dazzle

Inspired by a true story of a pair of wealthy brothers found starved to death in a mansion filled with junk, Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle gets a site-specific production from Simon Evans in the former Central St Martins School of Art in Charing Cross Road, rechristened Found 111. In early 20th century New York, Langley Collyer (Andrew Scott) is a renowned concert pianist blessed or cursed with incredibly acute senses and a memory that doesn't discard anything. So he can remember things he saw from his crib, and hearing a piece of music played even fractionally out of tune is like torture to him. It's made him wildly eccentric, and as his peculiarities have got worse his brother Homer (David Dawson) has given up his job as a lawyer. Ostensibly acting as Langley's accountant, he's actually more like his brother's carer, making sure he bathes, eats and turns up to his concerts, none of which he could necessarily be trusted to do of his own volition.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Theatre review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

I don't know how dangerous she is, but this Lesley Aisons certainly seems like a bit of a cow.

Based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses is still best known for its hit film adaptation*, but enough time has passed to bring it back to the stage, as Josie Rourke does at the Donmar. In 18th century France, the nobility's reputations depend on them maintaining a strict morality - or at least appearing to, while getting up to whatever they like behind closed doors. Men can get away with more than women, so the Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West,) despite something of a caddish reputation, is still welcome in polite society because of his charm and the frisson of scandal. Not only are the rumours about his sexual conquests true, he has an unsuspected accomplice in the outwardly respectable widow, the Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer.) The two were once lovers, but have left that behind to focus on corrupting others: They dare and egg each other on to find the most virtuous young nobles in Paris society, seduce then discard them.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Theatre review: Hapgood

Howard Davies looks around the Tom Stoppard back catalogue and finds something of an oddity in Hapgood, a Cold War spy drama that opens with a dead letter drop in a swimming pool's changing rooms, with multiple briefcases and identically-dressed men making it look less like an exchange of secrets, more like a game of Find the Lady. Hapgood, codenamed Mother (Lisa Dillon,) is the British spymaster in charge of this operation, and when it goes Hapwrong it becomes obvious that someone on the team is betraying them. Suspicion seems to rest firmly on Ridley (Gerald Kyd,) but Hapgood's boss Blair (Tim McMullan) seems to think he can only have done it if she was in on it too. Or maybe he doesn't suspect her at all - the characters are all constantly trying to trip each other up in a series of traps and bluffs.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Theatre review: No Villain

The Finborough must be kicking themselves to have missed this one, not only a forgotten play by one of the 20th century's great dramatists but his first, and never previously staged to boot. Arthur Miller wrote No Villain at university - in six days - because he was broke, and the Avery Hopwood playwrighting award offered a $250 top prize. He won the award and the money, but evidently the competition didn't actually extend to producing the winning script, and it got filed away. As Miller went on to become a celebrated playwright the existence of No Villain doesn't seem to have been much of a secret - director Sean Turner found mention of it in Miller's published memoirs, which is where his interest was piqued. But as it's a common phenomenon for a prolific writer's best-known plays to be revived constantly while others gather dust, I'm not entirely surprised that nobody before Turner had actually bothered to seek out a copy and see if it was worth staging.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Theatre review: Cymbeline (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

I imagine the Globe consider the two, hugely popular plays opening in the new year to be the big hitters of the winter season, but I know I won't be alone in most looking forward to the two that opened before Christmas, and which make it to the stage far less frequently. Joining Dominic Dromgoole's own production of Pericles is Sam Yates' take on another late romance that I have seen performed before, but so long ago I was essentially coming to it fresh, the ancient Britons vs Romans epic Cymbeline. Princess Innogen (Emily Barber) has married her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Jonjo O'Neill,) much to the fury of the King: Cymbeline (Joseph Marcell) has himself recently remarried, and promised the new Queen (Pauline McLynn) that his daughter would marry her son Cloten (Calum Callaghan.)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Theatre review: The Lorax

The colourful worlds and wacky rhymes of Dr. Seuss would make him seem a natural fit for stage adaptation, but his books are so short that expanding his stories to make a full-length show can't be easy without losing a lot of their charm. David Greig, though, has succeeded in giving new life to one of the writer's most heartfelt stories, as he brings a musical version of The Lorax to the Old Vic. In this expanded version of the environmental fable, the Once-ler (Simon Paisley Day) is a dreamer who travels the world hoping and failing to invent something amazing, until he stumbles upon a forest of colourful Truffula trees, that produce an incredibly soft and fluffy wool. Knitting it into a shapeless thing he calls a thneed, it becomes a must-have accessory despite nobody being quite sure what it is. He builds a thneed factory and a town supported by its economy, ignoring the warnings of the Lorax (voiced by Simon Lipkin,) a woodland creature responsible for the trees and worried about what'll happen when the Once-ler starts chopping them down.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Theatre review: wonder.land

It's the clichés you always hear about musicals - that they're not written, they're rewritten; that every "effortless" hit has spent years in development - that come to mind during wonder.land, the National's much-maligned big winter spectacular. Perhaps going into it with low expectations helped, but it seems that under what is, undoubtedly, something of a mess, a pretty good show is struggling to get out and, given time, might well have done. As the title suggests, Moira Buffini (book and lyrics) and Damon Albarn's (music) musical takes Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories and transposes them to the digital age. Following her parents' breakup, Aly (Lois Chimimba) has moved to a new school where she immediately becomes a target of the resident mean girls, who bully her in real life and online.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Theatre review: Forget Me Not

With the exception of The Royale, 2015 at the Bush has been an inauspicious year to say the least. There's been shows I instantly forgot and ones I really wished I could have forgotten, and their final show is Forget Me Not, which does feature something to remember. Unfortunately that something is a different, and much better show. 60-something Gerry (Russell Floyd) was born in England but taken to Australia aged 4 as part of a scheme to give orphans a better life. It was a disaster because, like Gerry, many of the children ended up on farms as, essentially, unpaid child labour, and were also abused. Following the death of his wife, Gerry's estranged daughter Sally (Sarah Ridgeway) has grudgingly reconnected with him, and together with her boyfriend Mark (Sargon Yelda) has tried to find any relatives he might still have in Liverpool. What they actually find is apparently a common story in cases of "Forgotten Australians" like his.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Theatre review: Pine

If Pine was 20 minutes shorter, it would be a pretty much perfect show. While Hampstead Theatre's main house doesn't tend to do a Christmas production, the Downstairs studio has made its own tradition of programming a twisted version of a festive special. We've had disastrous office parties and dysfunctional family reunions, and this year Jacqui Honess-Martin's play takes us to a large lot selling Christmas trees - not a cheap outfit on a street corner but part of a chain selling quality trees for up to £150 apiece (Polly Sullivan's design makes the audience rows of trees on sale, into which the characters can disappear to work or get off with each other.) The temporary workers there must be well-paid too, as they tend to return year after year. A graduate and aspiring journalist, Gabby (Hannah Britland) is there for the fourth year running as her career goals haven't worked out. She'll be joining her boyfriend in Germany in the New Year but for her last December at Festive Pines her boss Sami (David Mumeni) has chosen to make her manager of this particular outlet.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Theatre review: You For Me For You

Junhee (Katie Leung) and Minhee (Wendy Kweh) are literally starving, but to admit anything was less than 100% perfect in their lives could invite even bigger problems. That's because Mia Chung's You For Me For You takes place in North Korea, and the walls, and maybe even the trees, have ears that could get them reported if the sisters deviate from the script that says they live in The Best Nation in the World. Minhee always seems to trick her younger sister into eating what little food they have, meaning she herself is becoming very ill, so Junhee hatches a scheme for them both to escape the country. But as the Smuggler (Andrew Leung) helps them flee the reluctant Minhee falls down a well, and Chung's already quirky story becomes an Alice in Wonderland fantasy of East, West and two very different paths in life for the two women.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Theatre review: Cinderella (Lyric Hammersmith)

It's my annual trip to the Lyric Hammersmith's pantomime, and the third year Tom Wells takes on writing duties (and possibly the last - next year's Aladdin has, bizarrely, already been announced and put on sale, with Joel Horwood back as writer.) But for 2015 it's the story of Cinderella (Krystal Dockery,) the orphaned girl made to cook and clean up after the wicked Madame Woo (Sara Crowe) and her daughters - Cinderella is unusual among pantos in having two dames, the ugly stepsisters Booty (Matt Sutton) and Licious (Peter Caulfield.) Her only friend is Buttons (Samuel Buttery,) and her only hope of escape is the ball held by Prince Charming (Karl Queensborough,) to which everyone in Hammersmith has been invited. Her stepmother will do everything she can to stop Cinderella going to the ball, but she does have one last magical ally who'll make sure Cinders gets her prince.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Theatre review: The Ballad of Robin Hood

After they provided a popular Christmas show at the previous venue, Tacit Theatre are once again telling tall tales at Southwark Playhouse, and they revisit their setting for The Canterbury Tales to tell them: The actual Tabard Tavern probably stood quite close to where the theatre is now, which makes it a strange fit for a story usually based in and around Nottingham. But The Ballad of Robin Hood isn't quite the usual story of the famous outlaw, and Greg Freeman's story finds a way to bring Robin to London. As the title suggests, the play goes back to the original ballads that first popularised the legend, with a particular interest in some of the darker stories that don't usually get told. Once again the Tabard has been set up as an actual pub with a bar selling mulled wine to the audience, the cast doing songs and dances as everyone comes in (and getting me to provide the drum beats, which is harder than it sounds when you have no innate sense of rhythm, and Rosalind Blessed's distracting you.) Eventually the landlady (Blessed) tells the story of when a Sheriff (Tom Daplyn) brought his prisoner to her bar and he turned out to be Robin Hood himself (Owen Findlay.)

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Theatre review: Here We Go

Caryl Churchill's certainly been very visible lately: Revivals of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and A Number, a new play coming up at the Royal Court, and before that "a short play about death," the variously lyrical and frustrating Here We Go, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Lyttelton. Its three scenes appear to take place in reverse chronological order, beginning at a funeral where mourners including Joshua James, Amanda Lawrence, Alan Williams, Eleanor Matsuura and Madeline Appiah exchange stilted snippets of conversation about the deceased, platitudes about what a memorable character he was and how they can't quite believe he's gone. But we also get a glimpse into their own mortality as each of them turns to the audience to let us know when and how they will die (one will be run over the very next day.) For the next scene we go back a bit to meet the deceased himself (Patrick Godfrey,) moments after his death.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Theatre review: Macbeth (Young Vic)

When Carrie Cracknell directed Medea at the National, Lucy Guerin's choreography was singled out as a major part of the production's atmosphere. Now, for Macbeth at the Young Vic, Cracknell and Guerin share equal directing credit as they attempt to fully integrate dance with Shakespeare's text. Macbeth (John Heffernan) is the star general in Duncan's (Nicholas Burns) Scottish army, but an encounter with three witches feeds his ambitions and makes him impatient to take the throne himself. He and his wife (Anna Maxwell Martin) goad each other into a plot to kill Duncan in his sleep and take his kingdom. They succeed, but as with so many Shakespearean kings he finds power hard to wield. Soon he's arranging more murders to cover up the way he came to the throne, and to quash any new threats.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Theatre review: Linda

Penelope Skinner's Linda opens with the title character bemoaning the fact that cosmetics for women over fifty are regularly advertised with images of much younger women. There'd be irony in the 55-year-old Linda being played by an actor ten years younger, if it weren't for the fact that she's a very last-minute replacement: When Kim Cattrall pulled out of the production with less than a week to go, the Royal Court turned to Noma Dumezweni, who'd only recently worked with director Michael Longhurst, and who's due to make her own directorial debut there next year. Dumezweni's won an Olivier, although hopefully she doesn't bring it up in conversation quite as often as Linda does the marketing award she won ten years ago. She's head of branding at a beauty company, and her "Changing the world, one girl at a time" campaign helped turn them from an obscure brand to a world leader, with a charity arm that funds self-confidence workshops for young women. Now that she's over fifty herself, her new project is for the company to stop women her age from feeling invisible, both in their outreach programmes and in the way they market their products.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Theatre review: Funny Girl

The show hasn't even had its first preview yet, and already it's sold out: It happens to Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and it happened for real when the Menier's revival of her life story sold out within hours of going on sale, largely thanks to the star power of Sheridan Smith. The West End transfer has already been announced and extended once and a Broadway run discussed, so we're very much in "critic-proof" territory. So what's left to say about Michael Mayer's production, which the Menier were allegedly going to shelve if Smith hadn't agreed to star? Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart's musical version of a true story has had some new tweaks to the book from Harvey Fierstein, but remains familiar to anyone who's seen the film version, in which Barbra Streisand's performance became so well-known it's made producers steer clear of reviving the show until now.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Theatre review: Barbarians (Young Vic)

It can't be the best sign of the state of the nation that Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians is being seen as highly relevant in 2015. There was a highly acclaimed Tooting Arts Club production only a couple of months ago that I didn't go to see, because I'd already booked for this one at the Young Vic's Clare: It's the JMK Award production, which I always try to catch if possible, and this year's winner Liz Stevenson surrounds the audience with the 1970s world of Keeffe's three angry young men. A trilogy of one-act plays, Barbarians opens with Killing Time, in which three skinheads have been unemployed for a year since leaving school, and have just seen their former careers advisor coming out of the dole office too. It's a grim setting but we're in a for a lot of dark humour as the trio make a bit of cash a different way: Paul's (Brian Vernel) cousin steals cars to order, and will pay the boys to call him with tips on where he can find the model he's looking for.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Theatre review: The Homecoming

Jamie Lloyd has dropped the "Trafalgar Transformed" branding but he still returns to Trafalgar Studio 1 for his third season of plays; and after the first season's The Hothouse, both Harold Pinter and John Simm are back on the menu with The Homecoming. Somewhere in a dodgy corner of East London is the house where Teddy (Gary Kemp) grew up; he left six years ago, just about keeping in touch enough to let his father Max (Ron Cook) know that he's moved to an American university to teach philosophy. What he neglected to tell his family was that just before he left he got married; so his return in the middle of the night is a surprise but an even bigger one is his wife Ruth (Gemma Chan.) The menacing, aggressively macho environment is one Teddy soon regrets returning to. But far from feeling threatened, Ruth actually seems to thrive in her new surroundings.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Theatre review: Little Eyolf

Richard Eyre returns to the Almeida to conclude a trilogy he began during the previous regime, and his admirable project of improving Ibsen plays by making them quite short. Little Eyolf is the latest play Eyre has adapted and directed, and though it's not quite got the fireworks of recent productions at the venue, it does have a concentrated intensity. There's a lot of Pied Piper metaphor hanging over this story of a young couple whose marriage is broken apart by guilt. Writer Alfred (Jolyon Coy) returns to his family after a trip to the nearby mountains, having made a decision: He's giving up the moralising book he's been trying and failing to write for years, and instead will focus all his time on raising his disabled son Eyolf (Tom Hibberd, alternating with Adam Greaves-Neal and Billy Marlow,) making the child his legacy.