Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's been like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

Whenever I do my annual roundup of the theatre year in and around London I like to say a little thanks to the readers (both of them) who've put aside a few minutes of computer time that could have been more usefully spent masturbating, and have used them to read my reviews instead. Although given my preferred policy on what photos to illustrate this blog with, there's probably been a couple of times when multitasking was possible. I may already be getting off track a bit - the point is especially thanks this clusterfuck of a year when there's been enough other stuff you could have been worrying about. Maybe my blog's a diversion from it all for you, like theatre largely is for me (although of course, The Horrors Of 2016 have already been creeping into shows and will no doubt be doing so with a vengeance in future years.) But for now let's look back and give out the least important theatre awards in existence (or the most important - it really depends on how strongly you feel about nipples.)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Theatre review: She Loves Me

I started 2016 with a musical about a rather niche subject; I end the year on a more old-fashioned one that isn't strictly speaking formulaic - it became the formula for several Hollywood Rom-Coms. She Loves Me has a book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and takes its story from Hungarian play Parfumerie, about hate turning to love in the titular shop. Georg (Mark Umbers) is the perennially single deputy store manager who's resorted to a lonely hearts column, and has fallen for a woman he's been exchanging letters with. When one of the shop clerks leaves, her replacement Amalia (Scarlett Strallen) instantly annoys him by selling a music box he'd bet would be unsellable, and their relationship is fractious from then on. Needless to say, Amalia is actually the "Dear Friend" he's been writing to, and she feels the same way about his letters.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Theatre review: Hedda Gabler

Having played a part in Lazarus existing, Ivo van Hove has a chance to redeem himself with the classic reinterpretations he does best. He brings a production he originally staged at his own theatre to the National, as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler gets a new translation by (inevitably) Patrick Marber, and Ruth Wilson plays Hedda, married for six months and already deeply regretting it. The daughter of a celebrated and wealthy general, she grew up the centre of attention, including from numerous male suitors. After telling a series of seemingly innocuous lies, and in a sudden moment of paranoia about getting older, she agreed to marry the academic Tesman (Kyle Soller.) By the end of their extended honeymoon she's realised she'll never care about the esoteric subjects her husband fixates on, while he'll never be able to keep her in the style she's accustomed to unless he gets a professorship.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Dance review: The Red Shoes

Time for one of my very occasional dips into the world of dance - this year my mum decided she'd like to be taken to the ballet for Christmas, and when she heard that Matthew Bourne had adapted a film she remembers fondly, The Red Shoes, into a new ballet that decided it. Bourne's also looked to the cinema for his music, choosing the work of Bernard Herrmann - best known for scoring Hitchcock films, although most of the music used here predates that collaboration. In many ways the story is a natural fit for a ballet as it's about ballet: Victoria Page (Ashley Shaw) is a dancer in the Ballet Lermontov who's never really caught the attention of its conductor Boris (Sam Archer,) and so has never got further than background roles. That's until prima ballerina Irina (Michela Meazza) is injured on tour.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Theatre review: "Art"

Florian Zeller is the French playwright who's all the rage in London at the moment, but in the nineties that title belonged firmly to Yasmina Reza. A few of her plays got West End runs but it was "Art" that brought her to public attention and became a big hit. Matthew Warchus' production ran for eight years, its gimmick of replacing the three-strong cast every couple of months keeping it in the public eye and ticket sales going strong. With Warchus now in charge of the Old Vic he's seen an opportunity to revive the play for its 20th anniversary. In fact he may well be said to be reviving the same production - I saw that twice, with one of the early cast changes at Wyndhams* and then a few years later when it had moved to the Whitehall Theatre (before it became Trafalgar Studios.) And though it's been a while this feels familiar: The latest trio to play the 40-something men who've been friends for 15 years are Rufus Sewell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Theatre review: Saint Joan

When other actors have had Hollywood commitments this year, Gemma Arterton's turned them into opportunities: When Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn't make the transfer of Nell Gwynn she stepped in, and now that Cush Jumbo's one-season stint on The Good Wife has turned into a spin-off, she's left another juicy lead free for Arterton to grab with both hands, taking over as Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the Donmar. Following Henry V's military success, much of France is ruled by England, and though they fight back the odds always seem to be against the French army. That's until Joan's combination of guileless charm and forcefulness makes them take the gamble of letting a young girl who claims to hear the voices of saints, take command of the military. She quickly does everything she promised, getting the Dauphin (Fisayo Akinade) his overdue coronation, and control of much of his country. But with her job done, Joan is a liability.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Theatre review: Platinum

Martha (Siân Thomas) was a legendary protest singer in the 1970s, but she retired both from music and from public view. Simon (George Blagden) is a music academic doing his PhD on protest music and Martha in particular, but he's hit a brick wall and only speaking to the elusive singer herself will give him the details he needs. In a last-ditch attempt, he contacts her estranged daughter Anna (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) a commercial pop singer who's had some success with her first album, and is now struggling to put together a follow-up. Confronted with Simon's questions about her mother at a time when she's feeling vulnerable about her own work, Anna lets slip Martha's big secret: Her biggest, most influential hit was so different from her other songs because she didn't actually write it. She now lets Simon know where he can find her mother so she can give her side of the story, as writer Hannah Patterson returns to Hampstead Downstairs with her short play Platinum.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Theatre review: Wild Honey

Nobody could accuse Ed Hall's Hampstead Theatre of wild programming, but the word itself is one they're very fond of - we've had Wildefire, Wild and now Wild Honey, Michael Frayn's version of Chekhov's unfinished Platonov. This revival was due to be directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died at the beginning of rehearsals, and his replacement should be well-versed in the play: Jonathan Kent directed a different version of Platonov as part of his Young Chekhov trilogy at the National only a few months ago. There's another connection to that day-long epic, as Geoffrey Streatfeild returns to the one play out of the three that he didn't appear in this summer. Frayn's play is a shorter, broader version of the story of Platonov (Streatfeild,) a provincial schoolteacher who's spent the winter in virtual hibernation with his wife Sasha (Rebecca Humphries) and their baby son.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Theatre review: All the Angels

New plays in the Swanamaker have tended to have a classical music theme to tie in with the venue's concert series - Farinelli and the King has so far been the big hit. Nick Drake's All the Angels is a returning show from the Dominic Dromgoole era, with a look at a particularly famous piece of music: Handel (David Horovitch) was best-known for opera but had had some embarrassing flops when the libretto to Messiah came his way. A religious choral work seemed a welcome change from opera, an art form he felt had betrayed him, while an invitation to do a residency in Dublin got him away from the scene of his humiliation, as well as a much-needed paycheck.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Theatre review: Dreamgirls

Not every Broadway hit makes a quick move to the West End but Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 show Dreamgirls taking until 2016 to make it to London must be one of the longest delays. The film adaptation a few years ago can't have hurt it finally making the trip, as it now has an enthusiastic audience ready for it, so the vast Savoy is the venue for Casey Nicholaw's production of a story set in the 1960s and '70s, about black music making a play to break out of its "specialist" niche and into the pop mainstream. Girl group The Dreams are childhood friends Effie (Amber Riley, doing this to supplement her income because her day job as a Dream Ghost doesn't pay so well,) Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) and Lorrell (Ibinabo Jack,) who sing original songs composed by Effie's brother C.C. (Tyrone Huntley.) Shifty producer Curtis (Joe Aaron Reid) convinces them to take a job as backing singers as a stepping stone to their own career.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Theatre review: Rent

I have my own theories as to why one of Broadway's biggest-ever hits only ever had modest success in the UK, and although I've seen Rent twice before, this is the first time I've seen what could be called a "straightforward" production in this country: I saw the notorious Rent Remixed, which must still serve as the gold standard of "so bad it's good," and the one time I have seen it played straight was the 2011 off-Broadway revival, in which the audience could be described as... very much what you might imagine an American audience to be. So it's interesting to see this 20th anniversary touring production played more or less as written to a British crowd, although clearly one made up largely of established fans. Technically an adaptation of the Puccini opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson's rock musical is an ensemble piece set in New York's "alphabet city" in the mid-nineties, with the AIDS crisis still in full swing.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Theatre review: Aladdin (Lyric Hammersmith)

For the fifth year running it was a big group outing to the Lyric Hammersmith's pantomime, where last year's director Ellen McDougall and set designer Oliver Townsend are back, as is Cinderella's Prince Charming Karl Queensborough in the title role of Aladdin. It's all change elsewhere though, most notably in the script where, after three years, Tom Wells has left (probably because he had two new plays of his own this year to worry about) and former co-writer Joel Horwood has returned without his writing partner Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. Panto of course always has a bit of a topical edge and so here the story's introduced by the villain - Nigel David Donald Theresa Boris Abanazer (Vikki Stone,) who lives in Fulhammerboosh, where the rich have all the power and the poor are vilified.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Theatre review: Once in a Lifetime

It's fair to say my past experience with director Richard Jones' work hasn't been stellar; at least I didn't leave his last three shows at the interval, but that is partly down to the fact that they didn't have intervals. I've liked a couple of his shows though so went along to his return to the Young Vic, and though it's lacking in some crucial ways at least I wasn't tempted to take an early bath. Once in a Lifetime is a product of the ten-year playwrighting partnership of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, who had numerous Broadway hits, in a version restructured for 12 actors by Hart's son Christopher. (Not that 12 is a tiny cast, but it seems as if the original required so many bodies it became prohibitively expensive and nobody wanted to revive it.) It's obvious why extravagance might have been on the playwrights' agenda though as their subject is Hollywood, and the particular excitement after the first talking picture was released in 1927.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Theatre review: Dr Angelus

"Ah well, you did your best and it wasnae very good... And that's a fair epitaph for most of us." Obscure mid-20th century plays really are delivering the best lines at the moment, this one courtesy of the Finborough's current alternate show, James Bridie's Dr Angelus. Set in 1920 and inspired by a true crime story, it follows recently-qualified Dr George Johnson (Alex Bhat,) who's moved to Glasgow to take a too-good-to-be-true partnership with the eccentric Dr Angelus (David Rintoul.) His gratitude and respect for the older man let him overlook some suspicious behaviour - like the fact that his heavily-insured mother-in-law only gets sicker the more Angelus treats her, and when she finally dies he insists Johnson sign the death certificate. George keeps his silence even when Angelus' wife (Vivien Heilbron) starts exhibiting the same symptoms her mother did.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Theatre review: Sheppey

I'd always thought of Somerset Maugham as a novelist and short story writer who'd also written the odd play, but it turns out in the early part of his career he was quite a prolific and successful playwright. He did give up the theatre for the last three decades of his life though, and 1933's Sheppey was his final play. It's a satirical, political comedy on issues that are sadly timeless, and starts in a barber's shop where Sheppey (John Ramm) is assistant to Mr Bradley (Geff Francis.) His sense of humour makes him popular with the customers and his ability to sell Bradley's various potions to pretty much anyone is legendary. He's always said he was born lucky and it's proven when he wins the £8,500 jackpot in the sweepstakes. But this financial fortune comes at the same time as a health scare, and when he recovers from what might have been a mini-stroke, he's significantly changed his mind about what to do with the money.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Theatre review: The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales

"Candles are so much better than electricity, aren't they?" Emma Rice's family Christmas show for Shakespeare's Globe opens with a gag about her drive-by Artistic Directorship of the venue, and the row over a lighting rig that'll see her leave in 18 months. Things don't stay quite as meta for the rest of The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, in which Rice and Joel Horwood adapt three Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, held together by the story of the titular sinister puppet. The homeless matchgirl meets Ole Shuteye (Paul Hunter,) who says they can warm themselves up not just with the matches but also with stories - for every match they strike, Shuteye and his troupe of actors will act out a story, starting with "Thumbelina" (Bettrys Jones, cast against type as an adult woman, admittedly a very small one.) I don't think "Thumbelina" was a story I heard or read particularly often as a child because I didn't really remember much of what happens in it.