Thursday, 28 January 2016

Theatre review: Pink Mist

The war in Afghanistan isn't a new subject for theatre, but there's always new ways of looking at something and that's what Owen Sheers' verse/dance piece Pink Mist does. John Retallack and George Mann's production comes to the Bush from Bristol, where the play is also set, as three teenagers with dead-end prospects see a way out in the army. Carrying the bulk of the script is narrator Arthur (Phil Dunster,) who's the first one to sign up and persuades his two best friends to join him: Taff (Peter Edwards) doesn't take much convincing but it's a harder sell for the youngest of the trio, 17-year-old Hads (Alex Stedman.) They do both end up joining Arthur in basic training though, and eventually on to Afghanistan, and the fact that Arthur was the one who convinced them ends up haunting him as their initial good luck sours, and a land mine sends Hads home with both his legs amputated.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Theatre review: Yen

Another Bruntwood Prize winner comes down to London, to the Royal Court Upstairs this time, with Anna Jordan's Yen taking us to a dark council flat in Feltham. 16-year-old Hench (Alex Austin) and his 13-year-old half-brother Bobbie (Jake Davies) are shirtless, barefoot and filthy, fending for themselves after their alcoholic mother Maggie (Sian Breckin) moved in with a new boyfriend who doesn't want them there. They left their clothes at their grandmother's to be washed, but she also ran off with a man so now they're down to one T-shirt between them for when they make a special trip outside - usually to shoplift some food. Hench sometimes has night terrors and wets the bed they share, while Bobbie has unspecified behavioural issues and is meant to go to a "unit" in the daytime; but it's the summer holidays and the boys spend their time in the flat drinking stolen beer, playing Call of Duty, watching porn and shouting at the dog, Taliban, they've got locked up in a bedroom. It's Taliban who brings a new face to the flat when concerned teenage neighbour Jenny (Annes Elwy) comes round to threaten to call the police if they don't stop mistreating the dog.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Theatre review: The Rolling Stone

Chris Urch had a miner hit* with Land of Our Fathers, which will be getting another London run later this year, and in the meantime another of his plays gets a further life (having originally played in Manchester after winning the Bruntwood Prize,) as Ellen McDougall directs Urch's look at a very different subject. The Rolling Stone takes its title from a Ugandan newspaper that takes particular glee in the country's anti-gay laws: Notoriously, it publishes the names, addresses and photos of homosexuals with the intention that they be arrested or, just as likely, lynched. It's a poisonous environment to set a gay love story, in which 18-year-old Dembe (Fiston Barek) meets Ugandan-Irish doctor Sam (Julian Moore-Cook,) and the couple start a surprisingly laid-back relationship. When Dembe's father dies, his older brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is elected pastor of their church, but not unanimously - those who object to such a young pastor will keep a particularly close eye on Joe and his family.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Theatre review: Herons

A second night in a row for me of kids in war paint - a quote on the website even calls Simon Stephens' Herons "an inner-city Lord of the Flies." I think this time around the cast actually are 14 or thereabouts, director Sean Holmes having found some of them from his Bugsy Malone (presumably this production's relatively short run gets around the child labour laws.) The setting is probably a London suburb, near a river or canal where Billy (Max Gill) and his father Charlie (Ed Gaughan) come daily to fish. But it's also where, almost exactly a year ago, Charlie discovered the body of a murdered girl, a classmate of his son's. Overweight, quiet and though apparently good in school, not street-smart enough to spot a bully targeting him, Billy is approached by the vicious Scott (understudy Louis Walwyn,) who says he has a message for his father.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Theatre review: Lord of the Flies

Nigel Williams' adaptation of William Golding's Lord of the Flies premiered a couple of summers ago at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to great acclaim, but for various reasons I'm not crazy about seeing stuff there so I stayed away. Timothy Sheader's production has now been restaged (by Liam Steel) for a national tour though; it's about halfway through its run now, and I caught it on its Richmond leg. The World War II setting of the novel has been updated to the present day but Williams' adaptation imagines a new evacuation of children, with a number of boys, few of whom knew each other beforehand, being flown away from a war. But their plane crashes on a deserted island killing all the adult chaperones, and the surviving boys try to organise themselves, quickly electing the no-nonsense Ralph (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) as leader, with a plan to maintain a fire and attract rescuers. But Jack (Freddie Watkins,) leader of a public school choir, believes he should be chief, and quickly undermines Ralph's lead.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Theatre review: 4000 Days

Peter Quilter's 4000 Days opens with Michael (Alistair McGowan) in a coma, following a blood clot on the brain. He spends three weeks unconscious, but when he wakes up he's lost more time than that: The action takes place in the present day but he thinks it's 2005, having forgotten the last 11 years. The most obvious loss is his entire relationship with his boyfriend - he only met Paul (Daniel Weyman) ten years ago, so when Michael wakes up he's a stranger. Following the doctors' advice, Paul tries to help his partner slowly get to grips with the missing decade, but Michael's mother Carol (Maggie Ollerenshaw) sees this as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again: She never liked Paul, whose relationship with her son was always rocky, and she intends to take full advantage of the fact that he's been erased from his memory. The two end up in a tug-of-war over Michael's affections and memories.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Theatre review: Botallack O'Clock

The abstract painter Roger Hilton isn't widely remembered nowadays, and evidently wasn't famous enough during his lifetime to be invited onto Desert Island Disks, either. This was presumably a sore point for him as he'd got his list of disks and luxury items ready, and one thing Eddie Elks' Botallack O'Clock does is rectify this situation. The title comes from a poem W.S. Graham wrote about Hilton after his death, describing the time and place where the artist did most of his late work: Confined to his bed after a lifetime of alcoholism, in a bedroom/studio at his house in Botallack, Cornwall, waking up to paint in the middle of the night. This is how Elks' play opens, with Hilton (Dan Frost) waking up and, after scrambling around for a drink and a roll-up, muttering advice to himself as to how best to start that night's artwork. After failing to tune into a station, the Radio (George Haynes) starts speaking to him directly, interviewing him for Desert Island Disks.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Theatre review: Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

Fringe stalwart Phil Willmott has followed the example of some of the West End directors in forming his own eponymous production company, although unlike them his is a not-for-profit venture. He opens a short residency of two very contrasting works at the Union with Bertolt Brecht's rarely-performed indictment of the rise of the Nazis, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich. There's ominous mentions of the regime's ambitions to invade other nations and spread their power and ideology, but the play's real focus is on Germany itself in the years before World War II actually broke out, and the oppressive atmosphere which sees people betray their neighbours before they can be betrayed themselves. A pair of Hitler Youth (Ben Kerfoot and Tom Williams) patrol as a number of loosely-connected sketches play out, opening with a factory worker (Joshua Ruhle) refusing to join in with the official propaganda, and being carted off to prison.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Theatre review: Richard III (The Faction / New Diorama)

Being the fourth centenary of his death this is likely to be another particularly Shakespeare-heavy year, but my first visit of the year is, as it often has been, to the Faction's annual residency at the New Diorama. Mark Leipacher directs a revised version of the company's first-ever production, Richard III, with the aptly-named Christopher York playing the title role. Opening with a dance-like fight scene, this is a young and powerful Dick, who we see being instrumental in getting York victory in the Wars of the Roses. The youngest of the brothers, though, he ends up several steps away from real power, and turns his easy brutality on his own family. With Edward IV (Richard Delaney) nearing death, Richard despatches with middle brother Clarence (Lachlan McCall) before starting a rumour that Edward's sons and heirs are illegitimate. Ruthlessly disposing of anyone who might object, he manoeuvres himself into position until he's being begged to take the crown for himself.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Theatre review: P’yongyang

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

Hot on the heels of You For Me For You, which looked at the more surreal elements of the North Korean dictatorship through a fantasy lens, In-Sook Chappell's subject is the restrictions on free expression and the country's rigid class system, through the medium of an old-fashioned star-crossed love story. Spanning three decades, P’yongyang introduces Chi Soo (Chris Lew Kum Hoi) and Eun Mi (Anna Leong Brophy) as teenagers, when he's the handsome and popular jock and she's mousy and reserved, but both share the same ambition: To be accepted into the performing arts high school, and eventually write or star in the propaganda-filled films shown in their local cinema. But their situations are quickly reversed when the school does a background check and Chi Soo discovers what his parents (Daniel York and Lourdes Faberes) have been keeping from him: His father was originally from South Korea, which makes him and the next three generations of his family part of the "hostile class," not to be trusted. While "core class" Eun Mi gets a new life in P’yongyang, Chi Soo's only option is down the coal mines with his father.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Theatre review: Queen Anne

It'd be a bit optimistic to think it signals 2016 sorting out theatre's notorious gender imbalance, but I've started the year with a trio of plays centring on women. The third is Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson's attempt to restore the memory of a largely forgotten monarch, whose name nowadays is mostly likely to be followed by that of a piece of furniture. The last of the Stuarts, even before her reign began its central issue was the succession, and England was determined enough to avoid another Catholic king to spend years and a fortune on wars in Europe to prevent it. When her predecessor William III (Carl Prekopp) dies earlier than expected, Anne (Emma Cunniffe) has been unable to provide herself with a living heir, and the seventeen pregnancies she's had while trying have left her physically and mentally exhausted. But she still embraces her new responsibilities, determined to be remembered as England's fairest ruler*.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Theatre review: Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkern

You don't see a lot of theatre about witch-hunts - presumably because Arthur Miller's The Crucible is so widely regarded (if not necessarily by me) as a masterpiece, that anything else would be held up to comparison. It's not put off Rebecca Lenkiewicz though, as she not only revisits the paranoia in Jane Wenham, the Witch of Walkern, she also finds a new and bitingly topical metaphor in the theme: Society's poor, old and disabled being demonised, scapegoated and ultimately disposed of. The village of Walkern in Generic Rural Accentshire saw its share of witch trials and executions in the 17th century, and decades later, when everyone thinks things are calming down, they flare up again. As the play opens a woman has just been hanged as a witch, leaving behind a distressed and sexually confused daughter, Ann (Hannah Hutch.)

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Theatre review: Grey Gardens

One of my last shows of 2015 was The Dazzle, a story based on a real-life pair of wealthy, reclusive hoarders, and I kick off 2016 with another one, this time in musical form. Edith Bouvier Beale was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who in the 1970s found notoriety when she and her daughter were found living in a dilapidated mansion filled with junk and cats. Named after the house where the two holed themselves up for decades, Doug Wright (book,) Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie's (lyrics) Grey Gardens looks at how a family of Hamptons socialites turned into crazy cat ladies, by taking us back to 1941: Edith (Jenna Russell) is organising an engagement party for her daughter Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham,) and putting herself at the centre of it with a plan to perform a number of songs. Little Edie has landed a Kennedy of her own, JFK's older brother Joseph Jr* (Aaron Sidwell,) but when her mother realises she'll end up alone, she sabotages the engagement.